Letter from Prague Civilised gift giving and home-baked cookies among charms of Czech Christmas
One thing I’ll give the Czechs: they do Christmas really well, adhering to their rich traditions in a way that does much to nullify the creeping commercialisation of recent decades.
They have names like Little Coconut Kiss, Wasp’s Nest, Bear Paw, Hunter’s Button and, relatively mundanely, Vanilla Roll. Cukroví are often made according to handed down recipes, and relatives can get rather competitive over whose are the best.
Adding that I don’t find them particularly tasty would be to invite the wrath of cukroví lovers, so let’s just say they are easier to resist than the bumper boxes of shop-bought chocolates that I invariably find myself gorging on in my native Ireland.
Christmas means the most to children and when kids are involved at home the morning of the 25th invariably starts insanely early. Unable to resist, the little ones rush downstairs at perhaps 7 AM to see what Santa has brought.
They then – at least in my family – quickly rip open all of their other gifts, leaving frazzled adults to find theirs among the mounds of wrapping paper.
Czechs – and some of this will surely overlap with yuletide habit in Germany and elsewhere – celebrate Christmas on the evening of the 24th, leading to what I consider a far more civilised approach to exchanging gifts. People take their time, open their presents one by one, and thank the giver.
Also the tree generally goes up on Christmas Eve itself and children don’t get to see it at all until the arrival of the traditional bearer of gifts Ježíšek (the Little Baby Jesus), adding to their sense of wonder.
Sentimental movie fairy tales are another part of the Czech Christmas. I had often heard of the tradition, but was surprised on my first Yule with a local family to find that the grownups also loved them. Fairy tales are by no means my cup of mulled wine. But then again, neither are the James Bond and Harry Potter movies that are our equivalents.
Where Christmas here falls down in my book is in the traditional meal, potato salad and carp. Honestly, it beggars belief that the Czechs, Poles and others have made a fish as cruddy as the carp the centrepiece of their main holiday meal.
But, all things considered, perhaps a little bit of foul fish is a “tax” well worth paying for the, in many ways superior, Czech Christmas experience.