In the Czech Republic, the high point of the holiday season is December 24, Christmas Eve, or Štědrý den - Generous Day, when the whole family gathers around the table. It is a celebration of abundance. Some sing carols around the lit-up Christmas tree, while others cut up an apple for luck or try to predict the future by dropping molten lead into water and reading the resulting shape.
The traditional dinner is served after sunset and usually begins with a fish soup with roe, followed by a main course of fried battered carp with potato salad made with root vegetables, eggs, mayonnaise and spices. The meal ends with traditional cakes and a variety of Christmas cookies.
However, before the feast, people usually fast all day. Legend says that those who don't eat during Christmas Eve day will be able to see the golden pig fly through the sky, a sign of good luck! Fasting usually means abstaining from fish and meat. In the old days, people always tried to have nine different dishes on the menu, even if poor families counted apples, dried fruits or nuts as courses.
These days, vánocka (Christmas bread with raisins and almonds) or štola (another nut and fruit bread) are the main foods served during the day.
It is not until sundown that the true celebrations begin around the table.
The Christmas Eve meal popularly came to include a variety of dishes that had symbolic meanings. Everything that could be produced found its way onto the holiday table. One holiday essential was a dish called “kuba”, made of hulled grain, mushrooms, garlic and marjoram. Eating legumes was supposed to ensure protection of the family assets.
Another essential symbol of Christmas in the Czech Republic is fillets of fried carp. Before Christmas, carp is sold right in the center of Czech cities and towns, so do not be surprised if you come across large tanks full of carp on your walk through Prague. They come mostly from traditional fish farming regions, such as the well-known area around the town of Třeboň.
Czechs find a use for nearly all parts of the carp at Christmas and nothing goes to waste. It is customary to put one or two carp scales in your wallet, because it is believed it ensures that there will always be money in it right through the year.
Some families buy a carp although they do not eat it – they keep it in the bathtub for a couple of days like a Christmas pet and then let it go in a nearby river or pond.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day (St. Stephen's day) don't have as rigorous a ceremonial aspect as Christmas Eve. The choice and variety of the menu on those days depend largely on family and regional traditions. On the 26th, it is common to serve roast turkey, goose or duck, or dishes made from other meats.
Preparation begins long in advance, during Advent, so that the cookies can be soft for Christmas. Little vanilla crescents, hazelnut "wasp's nests," shortbread and jam cookies, or the famous Czech gingerbread are all among the best-loved Czech Christmas treats.
Don't worry, you don't need to go to the doctor: just cut an apple in half. When the seeds inside form a five-pointed star, everyone sitting at the table will remain healthy. But if there are fewer than five seeds, someone will fall ill.
According to another custom, a candle is placed in half a walnut shell and floated in a bowl of water (or in the sink). If your “boat” sails away from the edge, it means you can expect to do some travelling in the next year.
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