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.
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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.