The festive dinner on Czech Christmas Eve is mostly associated with fried carp and potato salad, but few people know that this is a fairly modern tradition, established only after the Second World War. In the old days before the tradition of fried carp and salad was established, Czechs used to eat more humble meals, although they came in a rich variety of styles.
It was a custom in the old days to fast for the whole day on Christmas Eve, which is still observed by pious Christians today. People would only sit down at the table when the first star appeared in the sky and unlike today, the festive dinner would not start with a bowl of soup, explains journalist and food critic Petra Pospěchová:
“If we go back, let’s say two hundred years, the first dish was actually a Christmas biscuit. The dry biscuits would start the whole dinner and in most parts of the country people would eat it with honey.
“In some regions there were more unusual combinations. It could be honey and garlic, or honey, garlic and herbs, such as celery or parsley leaves, and sometimes rosehips. So it was the beginning of the dinner and it had a very symbolic meaning.”
Soup, which is today the first dish of the Christmas Eve dinner, would only follow as a second course. And there would often be two or even more soups to choose from, since the number of dishes symbolized the future wealth of the household:
“Christmas soups would be commonly made of fried peas, lentils, and mushrooms, or, in some cases, sauerkraut. Some of the soups had a symbolic meaning. For instance sauerkraut soup was supposed to be good against cold fever. So if you had it on Christmas Eve, you would be protected for the rest of the year.
“Some soups combined all these ingredients, so there would be dried fruits, such as pears or plums, lentils and dried peas, as well as mushrooms. It was a wild mixture, but it was rich, and that was the goal. In the east, on the border with Slovakia, this soup is called Štědračka, which literally means a rich soup.”
Pulses appeared on the Christmas table for many reasons. The most important thing was that it was easy to store them until winter and they were rich in nutrients. Mushrooms, on the other hand, were ascribed a symbolic and ritual meaning. Both pulses and mushrooms were part of the most typical Christmas dish, called houbový kuba:
“Among the most common Christmas meals were porridges or various baked dishes. Houbový kuba was made of barley and mushrooms, baked together with marjoram and garlic. It was a typical South Bohemian dish and it came in many varieties.
“In other regions, like North Bohemia, they would call it houbovník and it consisted of pieces of old bread with small pieces of smoked meat, some garlic and mushrooms. So that would be the northern version of Kuba. And in other regions, it was also made with baked millets.”
While the ingredients used across the country were more or less the same, there were countless ways of preparations, so the final outcome would differ quite significantly from region to region, says Petra Pospěchová. There were also major differences among what the rich and the poor had on their Christmas plate:
“In poor households, Christmas dinner was basically a richer version of the everyday meal, so you would have the same sauerkraut soup, but once a year it came with cream.
“In rich families, it was more common, even in the olden days, to have fish. Later, when fish became more common, most people would have carp but the rich ones had something better.
“Prague, in the 19th century, started to be influenced by France, so there would be exotic delicacies at Christmas such as snakes with herb butter.”
Until then, the most common ways of preparing the fish was kapr na černo (black carp), baked with sweet sauce made with dried plums, or kapr na modro (blue carp), which changed color by being cooked in vinegar.
The Czech Christmas dinner wouldn’t be complete without the traditional Christmas pastry known as vánočka. The sweet bread was originally made only in rich families but in due time, it became increasingly common in most households.
“In many regions there would be one big vánočka on the table, but they would also make a little one for all the members of the household. If you included all the helpers, the guys working in the fields for the family, it could be 40 or 50 vánočkas altogether.
Speaking about extended families, in the old days, domestic animals were also considered part of the family and they were included in the Christmas festivities, says Petra Pospěchová. In some regions, people would give the animals a bit of every dish they had on the table, to thank them for feeding the family throughout the year.
“For example in the southeast of the country, the goat would have her own plate and she would have three bites of every dish on the table. In the north, mountainy part of the country, in Pokrkonoší, people would bring the food remains to the cows.
“One part of the story is pagan: people wanted to ritually keep the animals well in the coming year. And the other part of the story is Christian: the animals were in the stall with Little Jesus so they had to share the Christmas Eve dinner with the people.”