Friday, December 11, 2015


(Excerpts adapted from my autobiography, CZECHING MY ROOTS:A Legacy and Heritage Saga by Leona Sprinclova Choy) Recollections were by my grandmother, Frantiska Plachy Sprinclova.

LOCATION: Radlice, a small village in what is now called the Czech Republic, the ancestral home of my family

We began our Christmas celebrations on December 4th (St. Barbara's Day) when girls brought a sprig of a blossoming tree into the house and placed it in water. It was said that if this “good luck branch” blossomed by Christmas Eve, good fortune was in store. If the girl was unmarried, she would find a good husband during the coming year. 

We celebrated Saint Nicholas Day on the Saturday before December 6th. The “real” Saint Nicholas was born about 270 A.D. in Lycia, a small country along the Mediterranean Sea, part of present day Turkey. He was a bishop of the Church. The legend of his generosity and good works grew into a full blown custom of leaving gifts secretly at the homes of poor families with small children on St. Nicholas Eve, December 5th. He became known around the world as the patron saint of children. (A more detailed story was posted on my blog post previously as “Will the real Saint Nicholas please stand up?”)

The day of Christmas Eve was called “vanoce” and everyone was supposed to fast until evening. Legend has it that anyone who succeeded would see a vision of a “Golden Pig” and have good luck all year.

We spent the day decorating a Christmas tree newly cut from our forest with decorations of real candles, hand-blown glass ornaments, gingerbread cookies, wrapped candies, nuts, honey cakes, and ornaments crafted from straw or cloth and shaped from baked dough.

Our tradition of eating fresh water carp fish (not American river-bottom carp) on Christmas Eve dates back many centuries. A fish was the symbol of Jesus Christ from the days of the Early Church. Nearly every Czech village has a community pond to which all families contribute by stocking with baby fish in the spring. The fish grow big during the summer after which the pond is drained dry and all the fish are caught. It is filled again the following spring and restocked. The carp must be kept alive until use, often put into the bathtub until it is prepared. 

The culinary tradition was that the tasty big carp should be prepared in four different ways. Best cuts were covered with flour, dipped in egg, then bread crumbs and fried. Other cuts were steamed and then smothered with a thick black sauce of prunes, nuts, raisins, carrots, parsley, celery, hard gingerbread and spices. That was served with dumplings made with butter-fried cubes of bread or rolls. A third portion was made into sort of a gelatin and chilled for appetizers later. The head and tail were wrapped in a cloth and boiled with herbs as stock for soup with finely cut carrots and other garden vegetables.

A traditional appetizer was pearl barley soup with dried mushrooms. Sweets included “pernicks,” gingerbread, kolaches, and apple strudel, “vanocka” (braided Christmas sweet bread), decorated cookies, and sweet, nutty Christmas crescents. We had a big family and not much money but we followed as many traditions as we could. 

When it got dark, we all went outdoors to watch for the first star which reminded us of the star that guided the wise men to Jesus. We went indoors, said a prayer of thanks to God for the past year's blessings, then ate our Christmas Eve meal for which some relatives usually joined us. Tradition was to set the table for exactly the number of people who were going to dine, but there was one more place setting to welcome a stranger who might show up. It was thought that the stranger could be the Christ Child come to bless us. The first person to leave the table when the meal was finished was thought to be the first person to die in the coming year. That was why everyone tried to stand up at the same time! Dinner usually included a potato salad and a carp dish, but many now replace the fish with chicken, duck, goose, or pork snitzel.

Afterward we would gather around the wood stove to sing Christmas hymns like “Ticha Noc” (Silent Night). Under the Christmas tree we had a little wooden manger scene called “Betlem.” An appointed person would secretly tinkle a little bell on the Christmas tree to signal that the “Jezisek,” the Christ Child, who was traveling through the countryside, had brought gifts. It was time to open the presents. In our family the gifts were mostly practical ones, things to wear or homemade toys, maybe a pair of shoes or boots for each child.

One special custom was to put down a bedding of straw or hay on our wooden floor (we didn't have rugs or carpets) near the Christmas tree, and if the children wanted to sleep on it, we reminded them that they were participating in the poor and humble birth of baby Jesus in the manger.

On Christmas Eve many families went to a candle light service in our church. But for us it was a very long walk of several miles through the deep forest and over many hills from our little village of Radlice to our church in the bigger town of Velka Lhota. Often the snow was deep and drifted and the temperature freezing. We would have had to carry lanterns in the dark and the bitter wind might blow them out. So we usually waited until Christmas morning. After we ate our hot carp soup and cooked porridge and “vanocka,” we would bundle up and trek off to church singing carols along the way, perhaps joined by other neighbors. Sometimes we got a ride with a neighbor who had a sleigh pulled by horses.

Christmas Day was called “Hod Bozi” and dinner might include giblet soup with noodles, roast goose with dumplings and sauerkraut, lots of baked goods, fruit, nuts, and coffee. The day was spent visiting and receiving relatives and friends and eating more goodies. It was the custom for those who had quarreled during the year to forgive each other publicly.

The day after Christmas was St. Stephen's Day, a time for children to go caroling. If someone invited them in from the cold, they received rewards of candies, fruit, and decorated cookies. Sometimes children carried miniature Bethlehem scenes with them. One traditional carol about Good King Wenceslaus was always sung since it originated in Czechoslovakia. Vaclav, or Wenceslaus, was known as the patron saint of Bohemia. Legend has it that in the cold winter the king himself would cut wood in the forest and secretly carry it to needy widows and orphans of his kingdom on Christmas. The carol tells about his good deeds. He was killed when still young, and there is a big statue of him on his horse in Prague overlooking a section of the city named after him.

December 31 was called “Sylvestr” after a saint by that name. Czechs serve a drink of eggnog with cognac and eat “chlebycky” (little open-faced sandwiches heaped with potato salad, ham, eggs, sliced pickles and cheese).

The Christmas season officially ended for Czechs on January 6 on “Tri Krale” (Three Kings) Day. Three men would dress up in costumes like kings and go caroling. To give a blessing to the families in the community they would take a piece of chalk blessed by the local priest and write above the doorway of each home the traditional name of one of the kings who brought gifts to the Child Jesus. Either the names Kaspar, Melchior, or Balthazar or just “K” or “M” or “B”. That day was the signal to take down the Christmas tree.

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