Life Abroad: A Traditional Czech Christmas

Want a glimpse into a European Christmas on American soil?  My mother-in-law hosted a fabulous Christmas and put out all the stops to bring us a true Czech holiday.  This was my first Christmas away from my family and away from the American customs I’ve grown up with; it couldn’t have been any better.  Want the nitty gritty of a Czech Christmas?  Here goes…

Christmas Eve

Everything is done on Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic (and most of Europe).  The entire Advent season is a huge preparation for Christmas Eve.  You eat your big meal, open gifts, and do everything Americans typically do on Christmas day.  My mother-in-law has an exchange student from the Galapagos Islands.  When he asked what we do on Christmas day, she answered, “Nothing.”  To Czechs, Christmas day is just a day of no work and being with family.  The holiday celebration is mostly over.

Christmas Dinner

Dinner is carp.  (I nervously referenced this upcoming dinner to you when we arrived in the US.)  If your American family is anything like mine, you absolutely never ever eat carp.  It’s the throw-back fish on fishing trips.  Never, never touch carp: that’s what I learned.

Not for Czechs.  Carp is a delicacy that you treat yourself to once a year.  Carp lives in barrels of fresh water for a month to flush their systems, and many Czechs bring the live fish home and keep them in their bathtubs until Christmas Eve.  The fish are very bony and full of scales, and you can imagine the macho scene of fetching the live fish from the bathtub when the men bring it to their wives.  My mother-in-law skips this entire process and buys carp filets at a Vietnamese market in Denver, Colorado.



Czechs fry the carp, put it in soups, and cook it with a brown sauce filled with nuts and vegetables called “black sauce”.  Its got to be the blandest fish I’ve ever tried to be honest.  (But it’s worth giving up vegetarianism for one day to experience a little culture, for those of you loyal readers who might remember our vegetarian Thanksgiving.)

Carp is accompanied by traditional potato salad and a sweet Christmas bread called vánočka that is absolutely delicious.  Some of the best Christmas cookies I’ve ever had are Czech.  We ate Vanilkove Rohlicky (vanilla crescents) throughout the night.  There’s a recipe for bread here and cookies here if you’re interested in melting into a bit of Czech heaven.



There was no throwing salt over our shoulders, though many Czechs are extremely superstitious.  They believe you can see your future (and greatly influence it) on Christmas Eve.

Attending Church

As far as I know, Czechs go to church on Christmas Eve like most Europeans.  The Czech Republic has a high population of atheists, so it really varies from family to family.

Exchanging Gifts

All gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve.  If you have young children at home, Baby Jesus helps St. Nick deliver gifts.  Jesus rings a little bell, signaling to the children that he has come.  The gifts are waiting.

Under communism, people got in the habit of saving everything, so we did not rip open our gifts.  We carefully unwrapped them and saved the paper for another Christmas.  This is a great place for some handmade gift bags, huh?  At the end of the night, we had NO trash!  It was amazing.  


We finished the night with wishes for a Merry Christmas.  “VESELÉ VÁNOCE!”  If you want to know about day to day life in the capital of the Czech Republic, you’d enjoy this Peek Inside a Prague Home.

In the meantime, Martin and I hope you and your family had a loving, memorial holiday filled with traditions of your own.  

(Images from ArchivRadio, The Lewis Family, and My CR.)