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Four Czech & Slovak holiday traditions you can find at the Old World Christmas Market

Old World Christmas Market – Dec. 2, 10 – 5 p.m, Dec. 3, 10 – 3 p.m.

For many in the U.S., the holiday season is full of cultural and family traditions, and the same is true in Czechia or Slovakia. At the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library during Old World Christmas Market on the first weekend of December you can find a number of customs represented around the museum. Here are a few that you can take part in during the weekend.

Christmas Carp

You may be wondering what a carp has to do with Christmas. Well, in Czechia and Slovakia — and other nearby nations, including Poland, Austria, Germany, and Croatia – carp is the main course for the big holiday meal. A few days before Christmas, families go out to pick their carp and bring it back home. But where would you store this fish?

Paper crafts made by children in the shape of a fish

Fig. 1 – Example crafts of the Christmas Carp

The bathtub!
That’s right. The carp would live in the clean water of the bathtub to flush out the muddy water in the bottom-feeder’s digestive system and to keep it fresh for the big day.

You can make your own festive paper Christmas carp and make wishes on it at the museum in the Faces of Freedom exhibition!

Christmas Tree

In the Czech tradition, it is the baby Jesus who brings the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. This means that parents must sneakily decorate the tree and move it into the living room while the kids aren’t in there.

We aren’t as sneaky at the museum. It takes a team of volunteers and staff members to set up the 13.5-foot-tall Christmas tree in Rozek Grand Hall and decorate it with more than 1,500 ornaments. Most of the ornaments are hand-made and have special meanings drawn from Christianity and Czech folklore.

A christmas tree with a smiling man

Fig. 2 – Our NCSML Christmas Tree with Facility Manager Grant

The Angel represents the angel who appeared before Mary, announcing that she would be the mother of Jesus.

Popcorn signifies the rope Joseph held as he led the donkey to Bethlehem.

Walnuts represent the gifts from the Three Wise Men.

Oranges are a special fruit only available during the Christmas season.

Wheat is a symbol of life, prosperity, and nourishment.

Cloth at the base of the tree represents Jesus’ swaddling clothes.

Apples remind us of Adam and Eve, or are decorated with raisins on toothpicks to look like a hedgehog.

A White Dove is placed near the top of the tree to evoke peace.

Carrots are often given to a new wife to bring good luck in the kitchen.

Mushrooms are considered to be lucky and mean good fortune is at hand.

Pine cones and evergreen trees symbolize eternal life.

Moravian stars signify the beginning of Advent.

Svatý Mikuláš

Three people in a devil, santa claus, and angel costumes

Fig. 3 – Svatý Mikuláš, Čert, and Anděl

He goes by many names: Father Christmas, St. Nicholas, Santa Claus, but in Czechia he’s Svatý Mikuláš. Early in December Svatý Mikuláš along with Čert and Anděl (the Devil and Angel) go around to all the kids and ask them if they have been good that year. The kids then recite a poem or sing a song. If they have been good they get a treat of fruit, candy, or a small toy from the angel. If they were naughty then the devil would give them, not coal since that was worth something, but a rotten potato! Sometimes if the kid was particularly naughty that year, then the devil would threaten to toss them into his sack and take them with him.

Unlike Santa Claus, Svatý Mikuláš doesn’t deliver the children’s gifts on Christmas — that is the baby Jesus’ job in Czechia and Slovakia. Svatý Mikuláš, Čert, and Anděl will be visiting the Old World Christmas Market Saturday, Dec. 2, 12:30-3:00 p.m.

Christmas Markets

The town square of Dresden, Germany at night with the Christmas Market in the middle

Fig. 4 – Striezelmarkt in Dresden, Germany. One of the oldest markets.

During the month of December it is common in Europe to find large, outdoor Christmas markets. These markets originated in Germany in the 1300s and were open for a handful of days. Now the Advent season is ushered in by the opening of these grand markets, some of which last the entire month of December.

Traditionally these markets are in the town square where there are vendors, food, drink, singing, and various forms of entertainment.

For the first weekend of December the entirety of the WFLA/ZCBJ Heritage Hall at the NCSML gets transformed into a marketplace where you can find gifts, food, and drinks.

BONUS: the Killian’s Store Santa’s Workshop

Small statues of Mr. and Mrs. Claus

Fig. 5 – Mr. and Mrs. Claus on display at the Kosek building 2015

One of my favorite Christmas traditions from our own backyard, here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, comes from a department store. Killian’s Department Store was a staple in Cedar Rapids from the time it opened in 1911 until it closed in 1982. Killian’s became known for its whimsical, animatronic Santa’s Workshop window display. It became part of some families’ holiday traditions to go see the elves and Mr. and Mrs. Claus in the department store windows. When Killian’s closed, Santa and his elves were purchased by the Zazza family, who later donated them to the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. We have been able to display them a few times, and this year we are bringing them back out of storage to hang out in Rozek Grand Hall.

Old World Christmas Market is part of Deck the District in the Czech Village/New Bohemia Main Street District. Visit DecktheDistrict.org to learn more about all neighborhood happenings, and NCSML.org for the full Old World Christmas Market schedule.

7 Comments

  • Susan Horak Satalino

    Czechoslovakian tradition in our family❤️ We have these little stockings with a Coin in them. My grandmother brought them over when she was little. I still hang them on my tree every year 🎄

    Reply
  • Carol (Cinkel) Harsha

    Dear NCSML Staff and Volunteers,

    Thank you for assembling this joyous, informative e-mail!

    As a child, I recall my Czech American mother telling me that there was a Christmas Carp in a bathtub of her Chicago childhood home. Her father (a Skarda) was a Czech immigrant and her mother (a Liska) was a first generation Czech American

    My husband, Larry, and I would love to participate in the NCSML Christmas events. Unfortunately, that would require 3,600 miles of travel. However, we DID enjoy our most recent visit this summer.

    May you all have a joyous Christmas season! – Carol (Cinkrl) Harsha

    Reply
  • Angelique Monticello

    It is great I stumbled onto this, I never got to learn about my families Czech holiday traditions. Both my father & Grandmother passed when I was a child after that lost all ties.

    Reply
  • pam pipkin

    Thank you so much. My Slovak grandmother always had Christmas wafers, oplatic ( sp?).And being from Chicago I always remember the Field’s windows. Macy’s doesn’t cut it. Merry Christmas

    Reply
  • Patrick Muller

    Don’t forget the pickle! There might be one for sale in the gift shop.

    Reply
  • Diane Makovec

    My husbands grandmother and grandfather were from Slovenia. A Christmas tradition was to make potica, a sweet bread with raisins and walnuts. The tradition has been passed down to her daughter (our aunt) and she has now passed and I will be making the potica. My husband and I attended this wonderful weekend last year and thoroughly enjoyed learning and experiencing all the traditions. We are happy to receive this email so we can attend again this year. A wonderful experience!

    Reply
  • Jerry Silhan

    To this day I have vivid memories of a carp in our bathtub in the days prior to Christmas Eve when I was about 3 years old and my grandmother still lived with us. This was something we did but I had absolutely no idea it was a tradition for others as well.

    Maybe the reason I remember it so well was somebody thought it would be funny to pick me up and stand me in the tub water with the fish. But when the carp came over and poked me in the knees, I began screaming at the top of my lungs. It was traumatic at the time as a 3 year old but now I can look back and remember our Christmas carp with a smile.

    Veselé Vánoce všem!

    Reply

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