The Christmas season begins on December 6, Saint Nicholas day. On that day Czechs hold parties at which there are three guests of honor dressed as an angel, a devil, and St. Nicholas. The devil looks for naughty children and rattles his chain. He will give bad children a sooty lump of coal or might even try to drag them off. The Angel smiles upon the good children and helps St. Nicholas to distribute gifts.
A few days before Christmas, families get busy with preparing cookies, food, and presents. Although Americans will usually have a turkey or ham or other festive meat for Christmas, the traditional Czech dish is carp. Carp are rather like large goldfish, and are used as ornamental fish in many fancy gardens here in the US. Czechs who live in the villages raise carp in artificial ponds all year long. When Christmas time comes around, the villagers will drain their ponds and gather the fish in big tubs to take to the city for sale. On the street corners in big cities, fish sellers will stand with a butcher block and scales to weigh and sell the fish. If you want, they will clean the fish right there on the street and wrap it up. However, many Czechs want their carp to be as fresh as possible, so they bring a bucket of water to take their fish home in. Once at home, they will fill up the bathtub and let the fish swim around in it until they are ready to cook it. You might have to wait until the carp is roasting in the oven before you can take your bath on Christmas Eve!
After the carp is eaten, the children are sent off to their room for a while, where their mother might read them a story, because the father has an important job to do. He will put up the Christmas tree and decorate it all at once, put the presents in piles (one for each child) under the tree and light candles and sparklers on it. Czechs like to hang chocolates on their trees, and other ornaments are often made of common domestic materials such as straw, cloth, or baked dough. When the tree is all ready, the father rings a bell and the children come running to see the tree brightly shining. They open their presents and then the family stands around the tree singing Christmas carols. Because St. Nicholas already brought them gifts a couple of weeks earlier, the children are told that these presents are from the baby Jesus. People also go caroling from one house to another, and like our trick-or-treaters, they will receive various goodies, such as nuts, fruit, and chocolates.
The holiday season closes with a New Year’s party, called Silvestr in honor of St. Sylvester, whose name comes on that day. This party is very similar to ours, with feasting , drinking and waiting to ring in the new year at midnight.
The other big holiday that is observed is Easter. Weeks before the actual holiday there is a masquerade parade in which people put on all kinds of funny costumes and walk through the streets. This is similar to, though not as extravagant as, the Mardi Gras celebrated in New Orleans. Czechs enjoy using a variety of noisemakers on this holiday, and a favorite one is a wooden ratchet. These come in many sizes, and most of them work by waving them in the air, which causes them to spin with a loud clatter. In some villages they have ratchets so big that they are like wheelbarrows, and you have to work them by pushing them down the street, since no one could wave them.
When it gets closer to the actual holiday, Czechs also color eggs like we do, although it is still popular to use natural dyes of one sort or another. The easiest one to use is old onion skins — you just collect all your onion skins for a few weeks and then boil the eggs along with the onion skins, and this gives them a lovely rich yellow-orange color. Sometimes people will paint designs of starbursts or flowers on the eggs in wax to create a pretty pattern. This leads to another round of trick-or-treating, this time for Easter eggs.
Boys take branches from trees or bushes (willows work best) and braid them and decorate them with ribbons, making switches about 2 feet long called pomlazky. They carry these about and occasionally use them to spank young girls (just in fun, of course).
A traditional Easter meal will include lamb or a cake made in the shape of a lamb (from dough like the one used for the Czech Christmas bread).
Other times of year
On every day of the year there is at least one saint who is commemorated, and these days are holidays for anyone who has that name. They are called namesdays and are celebrated rather like birthdays. Czech calendars have these names printed right on them, so you will know when to congratulate your friends and bring them presents. It’s a lot easier than remembering birthdays!
If you don’t live in the city, every once in a while someone in your neighborhood will slaughter a pig. Maybe this doesn’t sound very nice, but it is always a big occasion. It can happen at any time of year, but is more common in the summer. This is a festive ritual that involves making every part of the pig into some useful (usually edible) product, and there are some special pork delicacies that are served up only at this time. You can think of it as a distant relative of our local pig pickin’.