Everyone loves Christmas, that’s a universal thing. The way people celebrate it, not so much. In Western Europe, it all starts with Halloween. When all those (not so) spooky decorations go down, everyone knows there are about three weeks of a slow transition period which culminates with the first festive cheer of early December. In Europe, our Christmas period is much more organised. Some rules and traditions will make the British six-month-old Christmas pudding feel like the most boring thing on Earth. We prepared a short overview of important days and dates you should know if you ever decide to spend the festive period in Eastern or Central Europe.
4 Weeks Before Christmas
According to the ancient unwritten law, thou shalt not mention the festive season before Advent. Did you think you could get away with hanging your decorations mid-November? Shame on you. Everyone knows you can first start talking about the festivities on the fourth Sunday before the big day. Nevertheless, you are always meant to have your Advent wreath ready by that time. For those who never seen such thing, the Advent wreath usually sits on your dinner table and has four candles symbolising four Sundays before Christmas. Each Sunday, you light another candle. By the time all four candles are burning, you are ready to start panicking about not having your presents wrapped.
Make sure you put your Advent wreath on a non-flammable surface as it is the second most common cause of fire in Czech households during December. After sparkles on Christmas trees, obviously.
Another important spell of festivities comes on the 4th of December. It’s the Saint Barbora’s Day and the name day for all Barboras/Barbaras. On this day, you are meant to put your snow boots on and go cut off some tiny cherry branches from the nearest cheery tree. What you must do is put these branches called Barborky into the water and wait. If they are in full blossom by Christmas Eve, you’re definitely getting married next year. No blossom means no marriage. Although traditionally it was considered a strictly girls’ business, I was brought up in an unusually egalitarian household and my brother was always allowed to have his own Barborky. He got married before me, so that shows you.
Just a day after the wholesome celebration of nature, Eastern Europeans have one of their first properly festive holidays. The sixth of December is Saint Nicolas’ day. And that’s when shit gets serious. The way it’s celebrated differs a region from a region, so the following description is specific to the area where I grew up – the mountains in the east of the Czech Republic
Every year, Saint Nicholas, or Mikuláš as we call him, visits house after house with his two companions to check up on the children, and to see if they were good, polite and helpful the last year. Good children are given sweets by his kind friend Anděl (angel – usually a lovely lady in a blond wig). Bad children get to meet Mikuláš’s other companion Krampus or as we call him – Čert. Let me tell you from a personal experience, you don’t want to meet Čert. Often described as “half-goat, half-demon”, Krampus is the definition of evil. He has a big smelly bag, where he puts naughty children before taking them to hell. I had the pleasure to have my head inside of that bag several times, and while hanging mid-air, I managed to confess every sin I committed that year. Even the ones I didn’t. Compared to Krampus, Spanish inquisition was a bunch of losers.
Additionally to being scared to death, some kids also put their special stockings beside their windows or front door before going to bed on that day. Overnight, Saint Nicholas fills the stockings with gifts and sweets or alternatively with coal and potatoes.
7th – 23rd December
After the horrors of Saint Nicholas, you have about two weeks when you can relax and spend time baking some Christmas cookies called cukroví. Controversially, there are people who would tell you that cukroví is actually superior to the Christmas dinner. Some families pride themselves on having up to 18 different types of cukroví prepared in advance. Which is a complete madness if you ask me, but each to their own. The most common ones are vanilkové rohlíčky, linecké, perníčky (gingerbreads), pracky, pusinky (meringues) and anything filled with rum or marzipan. My dad also makes his own vaječný likér (eggnog), which can only be described as a sumptuous creamy mixture of rum, slivovice and condensed milk of around 40% abv. There’s no such thing as Christmas without an eggnog hangover.
Another highly popular festive event of this period is getting your Christmas tree. While most of the people who live in bigger cities simply go to the nearest supermarket or flower shop, my dad always insisted on doing it the old-school way. His old-school way consisted of us venturing to the woods looking for lesní školka (forest kindergarden), where local forest rangers annually sell young Christmas trees. Each dad would be armed with a small saw and a flask of slivovice. While kids run around searching for their favourite tree, dads are free to degustovat (get merry) with some other dad’s plum vodka. In the end everyone leaves with a tree and three units in their bloodstream.
While Christmas is very well structured in Eastern and Central Europe, Scotland has more Christmas songs than it has traditions. Look out for our next blog post on Christmas Shenanigans, Part 2, in which we explain you on which date we celebrate the festive event – it’s not the 25th. And it’s not just about opening presents, they are quite a few other traditions that go beyond the actual Christmas date.