Czech and Slovak Heritage
Customs and holiday traditions starting with the new year:
Official Czech National holiday. “The Day of the Restoration of Czech Independence” (celebrating the founding of the Czech Republic on January 1st 1993) After a late morning start the main meal of the day is prepared which should include pork for good luck and lentils for prosperity in the new year. It’s bad luck to eat fish, your luck could swim away or poultry, your luck could fly away.
Feast of the Three Kings / T krlu (the three wise men)
In many Czech and Slovak villages, boys dress up as the three wise men “Kaspar, Balthazar and Melchior”. With a piece of chalk blessed by the village priest the boys write K + B + M above the doorways on a home. Which brings blessings on that home and its family for a year. The chalk letters should never be cleaned off, but only replaced the next year. This is also usually the day the Christmas tree is taken down.
Hromnice ( Czech version of groundhog day )
This is basically the same holiday as we have, but much much older. If the groundhog sees it’s shadow, expect six more weeks of winter. It being such a old tradition they have dozens of old saying around this day, most of them revolving around winter and the weather.
Easter season (Velikonoce)
During the Communist years the religious meanings were suppressed and changed to the welcoming of Spring. The Easter season today is a fun and festive time; many traditions have returned and are practiced again. The symbols of Easter are: the egg and the baby lamb, as the symbols of Spring and new life. “Kraslice” (Easter eggs) are mainly decorated by the girls and women. They use many different traditional techniques to decorate them, including applying real bee’s wax in a pull-drop style or scratch style, gluing on very small pieces of cut straw on a colored egg, batik dyeing, cutting out pieces of the shell, so it looks like lace. Wrapping the shell in a wire design, using colored thread, hand painting etc. Decorating Easter eggs is a big deal, a contest for them is held in Prague during the Easter season.
Masopust or Ugly Wednesday (Mardi Gras Czech-style)
The season of masquerading and merrymaking is called Masopust. This Mardi Gras is celebrated from Epiphany until Ugly Wednesday (Ash Wednesday), mainly in Moravia, but also in parts of Bohemia. Masopust which means “good-bye to meat” has always been among the most colorful and enthusiastic folklore events of the year.The universal characteristic of Masopust is the wearing of “face masks”. The most popular human masks are : devils, chimney sweeps, cow herders or sheep herders. The most popular animal masks are : bears, dogs, sheep and rams, goats, chickens, pigs, or a horse who carries a cloth bag in his mouth and collects sweets in it. This multitude of masks are worn in the traditional parade, while using a variety of wooden noisemakers. While loudly singing, shouting and dancing, these costumed characters parade their way from house to house, where they are treated to food and drink. The procession usually ends in the local hospoda ( pub) where the merrymaking often continues until morning. Some other local unique customs include a boisterous mock wedding in South Bohemia, and ancient dances using wooden swords in Slovacko. (a region found in Moravia and Slovakia, around the border)
The boys in the village take a specially made, large wooden rattle and go through the village, vigorously making a huge noise to scare away the traitorous apostle Judas. ( and to have fun )
The same procedure is repeated with the rattle and lots of loud noises.
On this day the boys again repeat the rattling in the morning, stopping at every house in the village. They make a terrible noise at each house until they receive some money, which at the end they divide amongst themselves. A traditional symbol of Easter is the lamb. Many people, rather than cooking a real lamb, will bake a gingerbread lamb using a clay or metal mold on this day. ( you can sometime still find this for sale )
This is a day of rest (or recovery) and a day of preparation for Easter Monday. Girls decorate eggs ( if they haven’t done so already ) and cut pieces of a colorful cloth ribbon. The boys will braid live willow branches into switches, sort of like a whip; called “pomlazka”. Today you can also buy them the week before, for those boys who are lazy. Some of the men don’t even bother and use a single twig or even a kitchen spatula! Go on to Easter Monday to find out what happens with all these items. For Easter the traditional main meal would be baked ham, and lots of food. A loaf of sweet bread called “mazanec” made with raisins and almonds is a must on this day.
Official Czech National holiday. Whenever it falls, it gives the Czech people a day off for the Easter holidays.
An old tradition in villages in Moravia and Bohemia is “pomlazka,” in which the boys take their pomlazkas (the whip or switch they made yesterday), chasing the girls and playfully pretending to whip them on their legs. This may sound cruel, but it’s all in fun and no harm is intended. Local reasons would be to get the devil or mischief out of the girls, or to make sure they would not become lazy. However, the girls and women are prepared, and hide or run-away. (Switching generally signified the casting off of the winter seasons bleakness and dust) After they are caught each girl rewards the boy with one of her wonderfully decorated eggs; the most beautiful one is given to the boy she likes the most, and she ties a ribbon to the end of the willow switch. Smaller boys also receive small candies. As this progresses through the village, the boys bags are filled with wonderful eggs and the switches become nicer and nicer with all those colorful ribbons. However, men today are not given an egg and a ribbon but a shot of “slivovice” (homemade plum brandy). They are very happy when they get home (and take a nap I would bet) ! After the eggs are eaten, the broken shells are sprinkled upon the fields and gardens to bring luck for the upcoming growing season. Another tradition in parts of Moravia and Slovakia is to throw a girl or woman into cold water, splash pails of cold water, or splash water on them. This is supposed to chase away bad spirits and illness.
March 19th St. Joseph’s day (Den Svateho Josefa)
It’s the Czech counterpoint to the Irish March 17th. It’s a day to wear red, the national color for the Czechs. It’s the day to honor the most common name, Joseph; it’s a festive and fun day in the village. In the USA this is mainly celebrated only in Czech enclaves like, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Nebraska, etc.
April 30th Night of Witches
On this day “May poles” are decorated and raised in many parts of the Czech and Slovak Republics. Each village attempts to outdo its neighboring villages with the tallest or most beautiful May pole. It’s the duty of the village young men to stay up all night, with some help from the local tavern of pivo (beer) or slivovice / plum brandy to protect there May pole from being pulled down by a group from a neighboring village. The May pole traditionally stays up until the next May. ( if it’s not been attacked by the neighboring villages )
Witches are made of old brooms with painted cloth heads and thrown into a local river or lake “to drown winter” (to celebrate the end of winter.) Many more times the witches are burned in the evening to symbolize the end of a dreary season. Boys will return home with a green twig or evergreen branch to signify the living spring. In the evening large fires are lit on hilltops and in village squares near the May pole to signal to the nation that winter is over. ( All this is still being done today in many areas.)
May 1st Workers day (Labor Day)
Official Czech National holiday, to honor the workers. Many people will use this holiday to spend more time at their “ weekend homes. ” It is said that some 60 percent of the Czech people have access to weekend homes. Weekend homes was something promoted by the communists to get people out of the cities, encouraging them to grow their own food and to keep them busy. The vast majority of city dwellers have some place in the countryside to go, most places still have large gardens with many fruit trees. Many villages are now becoming full of weekend houses and older people on a pension, as there are few job opportunities in the countryside.
In Prague this day is also known as the day of Love - couples gather at the statue of Karel Hynek Macha, the Czech Romantic "poet of love", in Prague's central Petrin Park where they lay flowers at the statue and spend a few moments holding hands.
May 8th Liberation Day
Official national holiday. Celebrates the end of World War II in 1945, and the country’s liberation from Nazi occupation.
July 5th St. Cyril & Methodius Day
Official Czech National holiday. Honoring the two priests who brought Christianity to the Slavic peoples of central Europe. They also codified (put into a written form) the standard Slavic language, the forerunner of the Czech, Slovak, Polish, and Russian languages.
July 6th Jan Hus Day
Official Czech National holiday. Honors the death of master Jan Hus in 1415, who was burned at the stake as a heretic because of his efforts to correct corruption in the Catholic Church. He was a Catholic priest and the rector ( head ) of Charles University, and became the conscience of the Czech people. He is a very important person in the history of the Czech nation. (now observed in the Czech Republic only)
September 28th Sv. Vaclav (St. Wenceslas) Day
Official Czech National holiday. Czech Statehood Day. Commemorates the anniversary of the death of Prince Wenceslas, who was murdered at the age of 21 by his brother in about 935 AD. He soon became St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech Nation. He has become well known outside the Czech lands as “Good King Wenceslas” from the old English Christmas carol.
October 28th CzechoSlovak Independence Day
Official national holiday. Celebrates the founding of the free and democratic CzechoSlovak Republic in 1918 out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. (now observed in the Czech Republic only)
November 17th The Day of Student’s Struggle for Freedom and Democracy
Official national holiday. It honors the student demonstrators of 1940 (against the Nazis), 1969 (against the Soviets), and 1989 (against the Communists) (observed in the Czech Republic only)
December 4th St. Barbara’s day
On this day a branch from a cherry tree is taken inside the kitchen and put into water. The branch then bursts into bloom during the Christmas season. This is considered good luck, and if the girl tending it is of age and not married and the branch blooms exactly on Christmas Eve, she will find a good man and marry him within a year.
December 6th Sv. Mikulas ( St. Nicholas ) Day
This is the feast day of Sv. Mikulas (Santa Claus) to both Slovak and Czech children. Sv. Mikulas walks around the village in his long red robe, accompanied by an angel holding a large book and a quill pen and the devil who is rattling large chains. Sv. Mikulas asks the village children if they have been good during the whole year. The angel writes down in the big book their answers. The child should sing a song or recite something for Sv. Mikulas. A bad child is told they could be put into the devil’s sack and taken to hell! On that evening if you have been good you could expect candy, nuts, fruit and small gifts in your shoes. If, on the other hand, you were not so good, expect potatoes, rocks, or lumps of coal. A tradition was that most children got at least one rock, as no child is perfect. The is very popular holiday today, it seemed to me to be mostly a way to scare children into being better for the holidays.
December 24th Christmas Eve
Official national holiday. A Czech Christmas tradition is to fast all day, having only sauerkraut soup until eating at 6 or 7 PM. A few days before, the parents shop for the main ingredient of the traditional Czech dinner: a live carp (fish), which are still sold in large barrels lining the lovely village squares. The carp is brought home and put into the bathtub filled with fresh water, for use later…. Of course, the children play with it, and a number of carp are then set free in the local river or pond. Shopping for the Christmas tree is next. Most trees are bought just a day or two before Christmas Eve, and are hidden. Some gifts are purchased, mainly for the children as their holiday’s are not nearly as commercial as ours. Not many decorations, just a few simple displays, are put up in mid-December. They keep to the tradition of simple, with little stress holidays.
One parent takes the children out on the afternoon of the 24th, visiting or skating. The other parent puts up the Christmas tree. Many ornaments are still handmade; a small Bethlehem (we call it the crčche) is placed at the base of the tree. The tree cannot be seen until after the evening meal. The traditional evening meal would be a soup of pearled barley with dried local mushrooms, carp (coated with flour, dipped in egg and coated with dry bread crumbs, and fried) and the traditional Czech potato salad. Then the children are told “ Jezisek ” (infant Jesus) has come to the house, and the doors are opened and they see the decorated tree for the first time, with some presents under it. All gifts are opened, and decorated cookies, candy and fruit are brought out to enjoy. The adults have some after dinner glasses of brandy or wine. It is also traditional to go caroling on Christmas Eve, in the street or from home to home. The carolers carry a small Bethlehem with them, and are often invited in for a glass of wine and a piece of the Christmas “vanocka” - a sweet bread filled with raisins and almonds. Many people will attend midnight mass as well.
December 25th Christmas Day
Official national holiday. Everyone gets to sleep in. It is also customary at this time of the year to publicly forgive those you have quarreled with during the year. Traditionally the main meal at noon on Christmas Day would be: a giblet soup with homemade noodles, a roast goose with bread dumplings and sauerkraut. After this huge meal (and the main meal of most days at noon) they eat fresh kolaches, fruits, nuts and coffee. (They drink a much stronger coffee then we do; ask for American style coffee, which they think is more like tea!)
December 26th St. Stevens day
Official national holiday. This day and the afternoon of Christmas Day is mainly used for visiting family and friends. Expect lots of great food, fresh homemade kolaches and some wine or a few beers.
December 31st News Years Eve
Its traditional to start off the new year with a clean house, everyone is busy doing their part to make sure that everything sparkles before the day is done. For good luck one should eat a piece of herring before midnight!
Name Days --- like a personal holiday
Every day of the year is designated with a first name. It is an important day of the year for that person, sort of like a second birthday. It’s a reason to celebrate; you normally get to pick a special meal you want, or go out for a meal. Friends and family stop by to wish you a wonderful name day, and give presents like a bottle of something strong, a box of chocolates, or fresh cut flowers. Which are NEVER given in even numbers (2-4-6) - they are for funerals! For celebrations always give an in a odd number of flowers. (3-5-7)
For a complete listing of name days, please go to the following site:
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Comments: Webmaster; Revised October 1st, 2007