Czechia is where East meets West. This may sound like an empty cliché that many other countries or even cities use to promote themselves. But it is definitely true that this country in Central Europe is roughly divided into two culturally distinct parts. Doctor Jana Poláková is an ethnographer in the Moravian Museum in Brno. As she explains, Christmas is a good time to observe the differences between the folklore in different parts of the country.
“If we take the Czech Republic and divide it from the South to the North by an imaginary line roughly in the middle, we get two parts. In the West, there is Bohemia that was traditionally under the cultural influence of Germany. The eastern part is formed by Moravia and Silesia which was much more under eastern influences. This cultural difference is very visible or rather audible in Christmas carols.
“In Moravia, you find the same or similar musical themes and melodies as in Slovakia, Russia or even Serbia. The main theme is the Virgin Mary looking for a place to give birth to her first and only son Jesus. Finally, after much trouble and worry, she finds the stable in Bethlehem where Jesus is born in a manger. This story or theme is missing in Bohemian Christmas carols.”
And then there is the food. Nowadays Christmas dinner is unthinkable without fried carp and potato salad. It marks the last night of fasting before the happy and usually abundant Christmas Day feast. This tradition, however, appeared relatively recently. And the Moravian Christmas menu was completely different even a hundred years ago:
“Certainly, there was no fish. It was not accessible food in the past. Even in the 1960s, it was not possible to buy carp in many villages. So people, if they wanted to follow this relatively new custom of eating fish on Christmas Eve, would have to buy a frozen fish fillet. Traditional dinner, for example in the hilly Horňácko region, would consist of cabbage soup without any meat or sausage, of course. Then there would be „opékance“ or „pupáky“ – these were sweet baked rolls made of yeast dough. Housewives used to bake them a few days before Christmas. Then they would let them harden a bit. Before dinner they steamed them in hot milk, let butter melt on them and sprinkle them with sugar and ground poppy seed. That would be all for Christmas Eve dinner.”
Some other traditional Christmas delicacies still survive, too. “Opékance” and “pupáky” are not alone on the Moravian Christmas table:
“There is a very strong tradition of eating special Christmas wafers. It still survives here in Moravia, while it has almost completely disappeared in Bohemia. You can also find it in other eastern countries, for example in Poland. These wafers are quite small, quite similar to sacramental bread. They are baked from unleavened dough during the Advent period. Here in Moravia, people eat them sometimes without any extra condiment. But sometimes they spread honey on them or eat them with a little bit of garlic. They are often decorated with some special religious motives and they are always baked specially for Christmas season.”
Perhaps the most visible difference between the past and the present way of celebrating Christmas was in the way people perceived their true meaning. In a way, the traditional Moravian Christmas started much earlier than today:
“Advent was important. Catholics would attend early morning masses every day, they were called „roráty“. Basically, since late November everyday life in Moravia was almost completely dedicated to preparations for Christmas. Everything and everybody kind of slowed down. It was natural because most people worked in agriculture, there was nothing to do in the fields and people just took care of their cattle and other domestic animals. There was no dancing. If people sang, they would be singing special Advent songs. Women used to pluck feathers together in the evenings and it was as much a social activity as work. Families and neighbors would meet in one of the houses and talk for hours. All this was part of the spiritual preparations for the festivities.”
One aspect of Christmas was common for all regions of Czechia. No matter whether you were Catholic, Protestant or (as in some parts of Moravia) Orthodox:
“The real center-point of the religious festivities was the vigil one day before Christmas Day. That is why to this day people in the whole of the Czech Republic and not just Moravia celebrate mainly Christmas Eve which culminates with the Midnight Mass.
“This vigil celebration is common in all Christian denominations but is stressed mainly in the East. You can find it in the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Belorussia, and Russia. Traditionally families gather for a festive dinner, but it is still a meal without meat. Then there is some carol singing, sometimes caroling, before the midnight mass. This is perhaps the most important part of the Christmas festivities”.
The differences in Christmas traditions only confirm that the Czech Republic is and always has been a small, but culturally varied country. But one thing about Christmas has always been the same: Christmas has been and still is a time of both reflection and material happiness and celebration. No matter, whether you are in Bohemia, Moravia or Silesia.
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