Traditional Christmas Eve menu and customs
It was once the custom to fast for the whole day on Christmas Eve,
for only the person who didn't eat until Christmas Eve dinner
would be able to see the golden pig on the wall that evening.
That morning the Christmas tree would have been decorated -
mostly with red apples, walnuts, gingerbread, and other
sweets, and on the tip of the tree the star of Bethlehem was
set. It was also customary for the tree to be mostly decorated
by the children, because the mother had too many other things
to do. Also, candles had to be fastened to the tree branches,
to be lit in the evening and give Christmas Eve an even
greater sense of magic.
The whole family would be finishing up their final
preparations before the Christmas feasts, which were just
beginning on Christmas Eve at nightfall. The table was covered
with a white tablecloth and the legs were wreathed in
garlands, so there'd be no thieves stealing from the fields. Under the table
was put a bowl of grain and on it a bowl of garlic. Garlic was
believed by all Slavs from ancient times to have special
powers of strengthening and protection. At that time garlic
was always present at Christmas in the Czech Lands, and used
to be as important a part of Christmas as the tree and sweets
are today. Besides garlic, he cross and the candlestick with a
candle stood for the sanctity of Candlemas. The mother then
layed out on the table a loaf of bread and a pot of honey. The
father then tied together some shocks of grain, dipped them in
holy water, and sprinkled the whole house with them, not
forgetting the fire in the oven, so it wouldn't be troublesome
and burn down the house.
Even if it was getting dark early on Christmas Eve, nothing
could be lit until the first star came out. As soon as it
did, the family all sat down together to dinner. This dinner
was always plentiful in every household, for even the poorer
ones tried to fill the Christmas table with the greatest
number of dishes.
Before dinner, the father recited the family prayer and then
dinner was begunby the cutting up of a loaf of bread into many
slices. Each was daubed with honey and passed out, starting
with the oldest, to everyone present. If a slice or two was
left, then that meant that someone would arrive in the family.
If one was missing, then in the next year someone would die.
Then all the other courses followed, which that evening were
more than usual, for it was believed that the more courses
there were, the more grain there would be in the field.
The traditional Czech Christmas Eve menu
had different forms in
different regions. In some places, the bread was followed by
soup, most often mushroom, but a traditional Christmas Eve
course eveywhere was kuba, which was prepared from grouts,
wild mushrooms and garlic. Like garlic and honey, mushrooms
also have a special position in Christmas. According to old
myths, they are ascribed a heavenly origin. Another part of
the feast were peas, which were prepared in the Old Czech
style - sweetly, sprinkled with sugar and gingerbread.
At the end, desserts were passed around, combined with fruit,
which unlike today were dried: apples, pears, plums and nuts.
Traditional Christmas desserts were strudles and
special Christmas bread. From the previous list, it's clear
that the abstinence that ruled the period of Advent gave way
on Christmas Eve to plenty.
After finishing dinner, no one got up from the table quite
yet. The father first took a walnut and an apple from a bowl
in the center of the table. If the nut was rotten when cracked
open, it was an omen of sickness, or even death. But
everything could still be saved by the apple; if a star was
revealed when it was split in half, this foretold health and
long life. Not so fortunate was if the cross discovered in the
middle of the apple. As soon as the man of the house had read
his fortune, the process was repeated by all present, from
oldest to youngest.
After dinner was finished, everyone tried to stand up from the
table at the same time, for it was believed that whoever stood
up first would die within a year. The leftovers were then
taken by the father out to the livestock. The poultry recieved
a different treat - peas or poppy seeds so they'd lay plenty
of eggs. The rooster, gander and dog got garlic in their food,
so they would be as sharp as they should be in the next year.
With dinner over came the time that children then and now looked
forward to most: opening the presents left under the tree by
After this came time for another customary practice: A very
common custom even to the present day, the floating of little boats
made of nutshells on water. A bowl of water was set on the
table and everyone put in their half-shell boat, in which was
fixed a burning candle. The fortune of each boat-owner was
read from the fate of their craft. If the boat made it across
the bowl, then a long life lay ahead for the boat's owner. If
it sank, then something less pleasant lay in wait for the
There was another custom connected with walnuts. After dinner,
three nuts were cracked open and their insides removed. The first
walnut shell was refilled with dirt, the second with a little
piece of bread, and the third with money. The shells were then
stuck back together and placed back among the other ones. At
midnight every took a walnut from the bowl on the table; if
someone got the nut with the dirt inside, then poverty awaited
them. Getting the nut with bread foretold a comfortable life,
and the one with money inside naturally was a prophesy of great
Other customs were practiced in particular by girls eager to
marry. One way of they could look into what the future had in
store was throwing their shoes over their heads. If the toes
pointed to the door, then the parents knew to get a wedding dress
ready, for the girl would be married within the next year. If,
on the other hand, the toes of her shoe pointed back into the
room, then their daughter had another year to wait.
If a girl discovered by her shoes that she had to wait for her
wedding and wanted to know for how long she had to wait, she had
to give up a strand of her hair. On this hair she would tie a
ring and hold it as close to a glass as she could. The number of
times that the ring clinked against the glass before it settled
was the number of years she had to wait.
A girl curious about the physical make-up of her future husband
could find out by pulling wood - closing her eyes and taking a
piece of wood out of a pile. The shape of this piece of wood
would reveal to her how well-built, bent, slim or fat the partner
future held for her would be. This fortune could also be read by
younger girls, who wanted to know about their future husbands.
Single girls could attempt to get an even better idea of what
their future betrothed would be like. All she had to do was to
take three slips of paper with the names of her probable partners
and tie them up in handkerchiefs so that not a bit stuck out.
Then she tie up a fourth handkerchief and put them all under her
pillow on Christmas Eve. On the morning of God's Feast (Christmas
Day), she would choose one of the hankies and untie it. If it was
empty, then she was never going to marry. This gloomy fate could
still be averted, however, if she put the three slips of paper
with the names into three dumplings, which were cooked for the
Christmas Day feast. The husband fate held for her would then be
revealed by the first of the dumplings cut open.
Christmas Eve ended with Midnight Mass, which was held in every
church. In some regions, Christmas plays were also part of the
Mass, which was followed in any case with carolling.
On Christmas Eve and God's Feast - December 25 - people wouldn't
play cards, go to the pub or visit relatives. This had to wait
until St. Stephen's Day - December 26 - when the dancing parties
and the period of merry-making and carolling began.
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