Czech Culture & Adaptation Holidays

Christmas for skeptics

November 25, 2011
Advent Wreath with Candles

Blending religion into Czech holiday traditions

Listening to Radio City (93.7 FM) this afternoon, I was surprised to hear the announcer declare that it’s officially one month before Christmas. This Sunday marks the first of the Advent season that Czechs celebrate religiously, at least with their Sunday shopping and their lighting of Advent candles, if not in a spiritual church-going sense. A month from now, Czechs will be cutting into their Christmas dinners of carp and potato salad and waiting for darkness to fall so Ježíšek (baby Jesus) can deliver presents to the good little ones and coal to the naughty. Since I had the American tradition of Thanksgiving on my mind, it was easy to slip into the holiday mode of thinking.

As I listened, the announcer went on to declare that carp prices would hold stable from the previous year and that the carp is actually supposed to taste better than in the recent past due to some special carp food that has been available this season. I tried to imagine an American radio announcer reporting on the quality of Thanksgiving turkeys or Christmas hams, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Still, I’ve lived here long enough to know how serious Czechs are about their Christmas carp, so the message fit. We’ll have a carp swimming in our bathtub in a few weeks, I’m sure. Although I doubt I’ll be the one to best judge if it’s tastier than the last carp I sampled two Christmas’s ago. I’ll leave that to those in the family with true Czech-blood.

After his carp message, the announcer played the pop Christmas tune of the season, called “Půlnoční” from the Czech movie Alois Nebel (2011). Then, as if for the first time, I noticed the lyrics. I wondered if they were supposed to be sincere or sarcastic. Czechs are noted for their religious skepticism, and I often don’t catch the underpinnings of sarcasm woven into the Czech songs I enjoy. Still, this song talked about the traditional midnight Christmas mass that I know many Czechs faithfully attend, despite never darkening the door of a church the remainder of the calendar year, and the plaintive lyrics combined with the strong “Hallelujah” chorus made me think it was sung in earnest.

This will be my family’s fourth Christmas in Prague, and I’m getting excited already for the traditions, both Czech and American, that we’ll incorporate into our family’s holiday. For the most part, I enjoy the family time we spend baking and decorating during the month of December as much as the actual holiday itself. Despite not being religious, the Czech Christmas tradition bears many “religious” elements, such making (or buying) an Advent wreath and lighting the candles each Sunday leading up to Christmas. We made our first Advent wreath two years ago, and I’m looking forward to doing it again this weekend.

During a recent trip to Dresden, we walked through the Christmas markets stalls as they were being were set up. Although they were fancier and more numerous than the markets in Prague, I still found myself looking forward to strolling through Prague’s Old Town Square to check out this year’s Christmas tree and perusing the vendors in search of the elusive wooden Santa Clauses that my mother and family found there years ago, but haven’t seen since. Although, I already know there’s not much I’ll buy, unless it’s a gift for relatives back in the States, still, it wouldn’t be Christmas in Prague without the trip downtown.

Every year, I spend a good portion of the days leading up the holidays worrying about the different traditions our family might miss out on, despite our best efforts to make the holidays culturally representative. This year I’ve resolved to let the season unfold with as little stress on my part as possible. The children are already old enough to begin asking their own questions. When making out their Christmas letters to Santa the other night, Anna Lee was halfway through her list before she realized that she’d written it (with my help) all in English. Oliver, on the other hand, had gone straight to Radek and his list was in Czech. Distressed, Anna made certain she’d written the Czech equivalent beside each request, and that she’d added Ježíšek‘s name under Santa’s before she finished. Their questions this year range from wondering why we aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving the same day our family in the US is, to asking point-blank, “What does Ježíšek look like?” I answered the first question without a hitch, but the second gave me some thought.

Admittedly, the Czechs’ relationship with baby Jesus as the “gift-giver” at Christmas seems fitting for a more overtly religious body of people than Czechs. In the Christian Christmas story, baby Jesus is the recipient of gifts at Christmas, not the giver. Christmas is baby Jesus’s birthday and he, in the Czech interpretation, is the host, or at least the benevolent benefactor of the holiday. Whatever the origin, imagining that baby Jesus lying in a cradle performs a similar function as the jolly American Santa seems to give both my children and me some trouble. I answered Anna’s question as truthfully as I knew, saying that I doubted that baby Jesus looked like Santa Claus but that he probably wasn’t wearing a diaper either. She seemed to be okay with it.

After I heard the “Půlnoční” song on the radio, I went home and found it on When I played the song for Radek, he also immediately liked the tune. We listened to the song and watched its accompanying video several times. The melancholy lyrics perfectly sum up my perception of Czech faith through skepticism. In the midnight mass scene, the church attendees are from all walks-of-life and the main character gets a swing of alcohol from a scruffy character before he goes on his lonely way. Neckář sings of tortured Jesus on the cross smiling down at those in the congregation those who believe in miracles.

Although the singer’s name didn’t mean anything to me, Radek was surprised to learn it was sung by Václav Neckář, a famous Czech actor and singer in his late 60s who was well-known to my husband’s generation as an actor from Czech fairytales and a pop singer. Several years ago, Neckář had suffered a serious stroke that Radek had thought had left him in the hospital unable even to speak. After learning of the singer’s recent personal struggle, I saw the song less in a sarcastic sense. Neckář’s spiritual message, perhaps laced with a hint of irony, seems a befitting tribute to the skeptical Czech’s Christmas tradition. It was a touch depressing, but in all truth, the holidays can be down times, and at least it was honest.

Although I’m personally a fan of more light-heartened holiday music, the tune stuck in my head. I won’t be playing it for the kids; I’ll probably saturate them with familiar carols like Jingle Bells, just to make sure they don’t forget them. But I appreciate the glimpse it gave me of Czech holiday culture and its often skeptical faith.

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