Christmas of our Czech ancestors

February 9, 2023

Today, Christmas is the most important holiday of the year for us, and it exists in three forms in our world. They are church holidays celebrating the birth of Christ, others are folk, full of traditions and customs, often even from pagan times, and then also commercial Christmas, full of hustle and bustle and an excess of gifts.

The main day of Christmas is Christmas Day called also „Bountiful“ (December 24), followed by Christmas Eve (December 25) and the feast of St. Stephen (December 26). Then follows the New Year (January 1) and the entire Christmas period closes with the Feast of the Three Kings (January 6).

Christmas falls on the winter solstice, which has been a key turning point over time since prehistoric times. In pre-Christian times, it was associated with legends about the birth of a new sun and the victory of life over death. It is logical that the birth of the Messiah and the early Christian church were placed here as well.

The idea of ​​celebrating the birth of the Savior appeared only in the 4th century. Christmas was celebrated throughout the Middle Ages until the baroque time differently than today, with merry parades of masks, singing and dancing, eating and drinking.

From the 17th century, Christmas began to be celebrated in the spirit of baroque piety with an emphasis on family values, prayers, moderation and charity. In the Czech countryside, where the supervision of the Church was not so consistent, many traditions, customs and carols have survived to the present day.


Our ancestors associated many customs with the Christmas Eve dinner. The number of people seated should not be odd, if the family had an odd number of members, one place was added for a real or fictitious guest. It was sometimes said that the empty seat at the table was for the last deceased member of the family.

Before dinner they all prayed together and were not allowed to get up during the meal because there was a danger that the family would not stay together in the future.

For future prosperity, ears of corn from the last sheaf or a harvest wreath were placed on the table, baskets with crops harvested from the fields and gardens in the past year, jars with honey, and coins or fish scales were hidden under the plates.

Many customs were associated with baking and preparing dough. Holy water was added to the dough, while kneading the dough, the hands were rubbed against the trees so that they would bear plenty of fruits. If something burned or failed during baking, it meant misfortune and death in the family. Breadcrumbs were saved for against diseases, given to poultry or cows for good health, thrown into fires or into wells for good water.

After Christmas Eve dinner, apples were cut and observed to see if the cores formed a star or a cross, which meant health or death. Egg shells with candles were floated on the water to show if any of the family members would leave the birth house. Somewhere lead was poured and the future was predicted from the resulting shapes. Girls would throw a shoe behind their shoulders at the door, and the direction of the toe of the shoe marked whether the girl would marry and leave the house in the next year. Divination was also made from feathers and the weather for the next year was predicted.


Since time immemorial, festively decorated dwellings have been decorated with twigs of various conifers. Only in the second decade of the 19th century did the Christmas tree enter Czech history. At first, however, it was hung upside down over the dining table. The classic standing Christmas tree came to Bohemia from Germany, where it was said to have been known since the 16th century. This now unseperable symbol of Christmas had to wait until the second half of the 19th century for greater expansion. It was first domesticated in noble and middle-class households, and only at the end of the century did it become a traditional Christmas decoration.

Christmas decorations were much more modest in the past than today. At first, colorful paper chains, pieces of coated sugar, glued nut shells, home-baked ginger and gingerbread, small apples, sticks and candles were used. At the top of the tree were placed wax figures of angels dressed in lace dresses. Straw, sweets, candles, paper, glass, beads and metal were used to make Christmas decorations.


Nativity scenes were also included in the Christmas decorations. Of the churches, the Tyn Church in Prague probably exhibited the first nativity scene at the beginning of the 16th century. At the end of the 18th century, nativity scenes were banned in churches, but people did not let them be taken away and built them at home, usually from painted stiff paper or breadcrumbs and from wood by skilled woodworkers. Building nativity scenes became a fashion and the phenomenon of Czech nativity scene was born, which has no parallels anywhere else in the world.


As for the Christmas Eve menu, it naturally started with soup. It was usually fried, with peas or fish. The second course was fish. These were mainly carp caught from Czech rivers and ponds anywhere around the countryside. Carp was most often served with „black sauce“ made from gingerbread, almonds, raisins, nuts, marmalade and sweet beer. Black carp was the staple of most households, and breweries had to increase production of this sweet beer before Christmas. It was only at the end of the 19th century that breaded and fried carp covered with potato salad began to spread. Snails, caviar, eels and pike appeared in wealthier families. After the soup and the main course, various sweets came to the table. These were muffins, millet pudding, fritters, buns and variously prepared fruits, for example on a spicy sauce thickened with gingerbread. Gingerbread cookies and, of course, Christmas cookies and Christmas twist cake were mostly baked. Drinks included beer, wine, punch and tea with rum.

After dinner and the giving of gifts, various customs followed, people sang carols, played various games, told stories and visited neighbors.

On the Feast of God and on the feast of St. Stephen was served meat. Roast pork, roast goose with dumpling and cabbage, hare on creamy sauce. Beer was drunk for that.

On New Year's, our ancestors usually treated themselves with stew with horseradish, pig's snout (they were said to bring good luck) and lentils (they promised themselves plenty of money from them). So that their luck wouldn't float in the next year, they didn't eat fish, and so that it wouldn't run away, they didn't eat hare. There is no need to reject the way of Christmas celebrations, but it is good to know the history and changes of Christmas and what our ancestors felt at that time, because then we will certainly enjoy this time better.

Our Ancestry Preliminary research helps you to find out about your own Czech ancestors.

Dagmar Pavlíčková