Christmas in the Czech Republic
Updated: Dec 19, 2020
A Brief History
The land that is now called the Czech Republic was originally inhabited by Celts. They were called the Boii, which is where Bohemia derived its name. Around 100 AD, Germanic groups including the Marcomanni invaded the area. In the 6th century, Slavic people moved into the land. According to mythology, they were led by a chieftain named Čech. In the 9th century, another people group called the Moravians created an empire in this region called the Great Moravian Empire (eastern part of the Czech lands) and it included what is now the Czech Republic, Slovakia and parts of Germany and Poland. During this same period, the Kingdom of Bohemia (the westernmost part of the Czech lands) became a power.
The area of what is today the Czech Republic was a pagan nation until the 9th century. In 863 A.D., two brothers, Cyril and Metodej (Constantin and Methodius), arrived as Christian missionaries. As in most of Europe, Christianity quickly spread and the Catholic Church became dominant.
In 921, Wenceslas became duke of Bohemia. His grandfather, Bořivoj I of Bohemia, was converted to Christianity by Cyril and Metodej. His father, Vratislaus I, Duke of Bohemia died when he was only 14. Wenceslas was a devout Christian thanks to his paternal grandmother Ludmila. However, his mother, Drahomíra was the daughter of a pagan chieftain and although she was baptized upon her marriage, she was not a Christian. In fact, she was jealous of the influence his grandmother, now regent, had over Wenceslas. Drahomíra had Ludmila assassinated in September 921. Drahomíra became regent, and immediately began measures against Christianity. When Wenceslas was 18, his remaining Christian nobles helped him overthrow his mother who was then exiled.
Wenceslas took control of the government, and to prevent disputes between himself and his younger brother he divided his kingdom with him. However, his brother later conspired with a group of his nobles and assassinated Wenceslas in 935. Though he was a duke when he was killed, Wenceslas had the title of king posthumously conferred upon him by the Holy Roman Emperor Otto I. Wenceslas is a martyr and the patron saint of the Czech Republic. The beloved Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas is based on the life of this pious man.
The peak of the Bohemian empire occurred under Charles IV in 1342, as he was king of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles founded the first university in central Europe in the city of Prague. The Holy Roman Empire ruled in the area until 1806 when the empire ended. Bohemia then fell under the Hapsburgs' Austrian Empire.
After WWI, Czechoslovakia was formed from the Czech and Slovak lands of the Austrian Empire. It was at first a successful democracy and was the only industrialized state in eastern Europe. However, it contained large national minorities, including Germans. This led eventually to tensions with the German minorities who wanted independence. Subsequently, Hitler, who had just annexed Austria marched on Czechoslovakia to aid the Germans there. The British and French forces did not want to fight to defend Czechoslovakia, and in meetings with Hitler, agreed to appease him by allowing Hitler to occupy Czechoslovakia in 1938. In a few months, all the Czech lands were occupied. By 1941 deportations of Jews and other minorities began. After the war, the country came under control of the Soviet Union and was ruled by the communist party. There were new purges and the country was run as a Stalinist state. There were a number of protests against human rights abuses over the decades, but to no avail until November 1989 when the evil empire crumbled—just as it had in East Germany.
Czechoslovakia finally regained its independence in 1990. However, the Czechs and Slovaks agreed to have their own separate country as they were two different people with different histories. In 1993, Slovakia and the Czech Republic became independent countries. In 1999, the Czech Republic joined NATO and in 2004 it joined the EU. In 2016 Czechia became the official alternative name for the country. The Czech Republic is now a prosperous country, making paper, glass, steel, ceramics and machinery.
Christmas in the Czech Republic is celebrated on Christmas Eve, December 24th. The Czech name for it is Generous Day. On this day, families decorate the tree, sing carols and open presents. One Czech tradition is that if you fast all day Christmas Eve until dinner (eating only soup), you will see the golden piglet. The piglet is said to bring good luck. There are quite a few customs and superstitions connected with Christmas in the Czech Republic, which can be found here.
Christmas tree decoration usually includes apples, sweets and traditional ornaments. As in most countries, a grand feast is the centerpiece of the Christmas celebration. Fried carp is the must have entrée. A unique Christmas tradition is that people buy the carp alive and keep it in their bathtub until ready to cook. Dinner is served at sundown and will consist of soup, fried carp and potato salad. In Czech households, the whole Christmas season can be consumed by the making and baking of cookies. There are many varieties, including: linzer cookies, rum balls, vanilla crescents, gingerbread, beehive cookies, bear paw cookies, and the list goes on!
The Christmas season starts on December 5th, which is St. Mikulas Day. On this day St. Mikulas (St. Nikolas) brings gifts. He is dressed like a bishop in all white. However, for Christmas, baby Jesus brings the presents instead of Santa. Children write their letters to Jesus, who lives in the mountains in the town of Boží Dar. Children leave the room where the Christmas tree is and wait to hear the tinkle of a bell, which signals that baby Jesus has delivered the gifts.
Christmas Eve ends for some families with midnight mass, while others will attend mass on Christmas Day.
The freedom of religion that came with the end of the USSR and fall of communism removed resistance to church affiliation and practice, but a degree of complacency exists that has hurt the Church. So much so, that according to Pew Research, the Czech Republic is considered one of the most secular countries in the world. It is by far more irreligious than any of its neighboring Eastern or Central European neighbors. What's even more surprising is that it is more atheistic even than all other former Soviet bloc nations.
Today more that 70 percent of the population profess atheism or are non-religious. The Catholic Church has a stronger standing in the Czech Republic than any protestant denomination, but its priests and laity are both aging. Though the number of adherents is low, Protestant churches are enjoying religious freedom for only the second time since 1620.
Pray for the political leaders of the country.
Pray for the people of the Czech Republic to overcome centuries of negative experiences with the church in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
Pray that the Czech people who are generally indifferent towards religion, to have softened hearts and open minds to come to know the one true God.
Pray for university students, especially in Prague. Many young people are searching for answers. Ministry to college students has been almost non-existent for years.
Pray that the economy continues to improve.
Pray for a decrease in crime and for those trapped in prostitution and drug abuse.
Pray for God to equip a new generation of spiritual leaders, and for growth and renewal among Protestant and Catholic churches.