Christmas is the most celebrated holiday in the Czech Republic, which means a lot of good (not really healthy) food and a huge feast. What individual families eat for the Christmas holidays can vary according to region and family habits. But four things are the same for 99 per cent of Czechs: Christmas bread (vánočka), fried carp or schnitzel, potato salad and Christmas cookies.
The main celebration is on 24 December, which we call ‘Generous Day’. The whole family meets and decorates the Christmas tree, under which Baby Jesus (Ježíšek) will leave gifts. Ringing a bell announces Baby Jesus’ arrival right after Christmas dinner, the most important meal of the season.
Christmas breakfast and lunch
According to tradition, Christmas dinner should be the first meal of the day and we should fast until then. Whoever does this will see the golden pig. But most Czechs doesn’t follow this tradition and eat as usual all day.
A typical Czech Christmas breakfast is vánočka, sweet braided bread. Since the dough for the Christmas bread takes about four hours to rise, it’s usually prepared the day before.
Christmas lunch should be light in expectation of a rich dinner. What is served varies from house to house, but usually each family has the same meal every year – often cabbage or pea soup, mushroom kuba, lentils or wine sausage.
Traditional Czech Christmas dinner
Dinner is served a bit earlier than usual – mainly because of children and looking forward to gifts and because it takes longer than usual. The traditional meal is fried carp with potato salad but a lot of Czechs prefer to eat veal or pork schnitzel. Both carp and schnitzel come inherently with potato salad. The main course is preceded by fish soup, or an alternative that’s most often pea soup.
Czech Christmas carp tradition
Carp is also associated with another Christmas tradition, mainly in families with children. Instead of buying sliced carp, they buy a live fish several days before Christmas and let it swim in the bath as a temporary pet. Then they kill it and prepare it themselves.
In the run-up to Christmas, there are carp vats on every corner in Prague. Some people even carry carp scales in their wallet, believing it will bring them more money next year.
After the dinner (and throughout the day), we grab Christmas cookies, which are usually prepared several days or weeks in advance. This is the day we’re finally allowed to eat them, rather than steal them secretly from the pantry.
First and Second Christmas Holidays
After Christmas Eve there are two days of holidays. On the First Christmas Holiday (Christmas Feast), lunch is roast goose or duck with dumplings and cabbage. On the Second Christmas Holiday (St. Stephen’s Day), we usually eat everything left over from the previous days (goose, carp, schnitzel, potato salad, Christmas bread and Christmas cookies).
So until about 28 December we overeat, then we return to normal eating for a few days – just in time for more feasting on New Year’s Eve.