Czech folk customs emanate from Christian or pagan traditions and often differ from region to region. In cities, they are no longer observed as much as they once were, but in villages, primarily in the Moravian and Silesian regions, they are still very much alive. Customs and traditions continue to attract great interest of all of the inhabitants of the Czech Republic. They are an interesting addition to foreign tourists’ stay, especially if visiting the Czech Republic at Christmas or Easter.
The Czech Year Carnival (Masopust)
A three-day festival marking the start of the forty days of lent, which end with Easter. Masopust preparations were preceded by the so-called “Fat Thursday” – fat because one was to fill up with drink and food as much as possible before fasting. The culmination of this festival is Mardi Gras, when processions of people wearing masks and theatre performances are held.
The Passion Week
The last week of the forty days of lent is called the Passion Week, in memory of Christ’s suffering. During this week, young people walk around with rattles whose sound replaces the ringing of bells, which according to faith have flown to Rome and are thus silent.
The Wednesday prior to Easter Sunday: the day used to be called ugly, black, or ash-sweeping, because chimneys used to be swept on that day. He who would frown and be nasty on that day would frown on all of the Wednesdays of the year.
It is customary to eat spinach on Green Thursday. The church bells sound for the last time, and then they “fly off to Rome”, to be silent until White Saturday. In many places, people believe that when the bells ring for the last time on Green Thursday, they should jingle their money to make sure that it sticks to them. “Judases” are baked – specially shaped ceremonial buns made of leavened dough.
No meat should be eaten on this day. Beliefs in the magical power of the Earth, and in the miracles that happen on that day, are associated with Good Friday. According to folk traditions, the Earth opened on Good Friday to reveal the treasures hidden therein for a brief moment. That is why soil could not be moved on that day, and no work in the field was carried out. In the evening, treasure hunters could be seen in the forests, around ruined castles and in other deserted places. Usually, on Good Friday, theatre performances – passion plays – are put on. In Christianity, this is considered to be the day of Christ’s crucifixion.
White Saturday is the last day of the forty days of lent. In front of the church, fire was consecrated – this tradition was called “the burning of Judas”. The custom of carrying candles to church has survived to this day: they are consecrated by being lit from the holy Easter paschal candle.
Traditionally a sponge-cake Easter lamb is baked. This lamb, together with a sweet leavened loaf (mazanec), egg, bread or wine, used to be taken to church for the priest to bless. In the Christian tradition, Easter Sunday is the greatest celebration of the ecclesiastical year, celebrating Christ’s resurrection and victory over death. Easter is a movable holiday, celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon, after 21 March.
Easter Monday is a day for relaxation and joy, and a celebration of new life. It is a holiday that is related both to the Christian tradition of resurrection and to the pagan tradition related to winter turning into spring. Boys flick girls with willow branches braided together and decorated with ribbons – they are supposed to transfer the vital sap of trees to the human body to ensure that they are healthy and merry throughout the next year. In return, the boys receive painted eggs from the girls. In certain regions, girls used to pour water on boys, to ensure that they were fresh, or on Tuesday, girls went around with whips in place of the boys.
April Fools’ Day – 1 April
This day is connected with various jokes and hoaxes, with people trying to trick their relatives and friends into believing them. This is not a typical Czech tradition, but given the inhabitants’ great sense of humour, this tradition caught on well in the Czech Republic. The Burning of Witches on Walpurgis Night It has been believed since the Middle Ages that, on certain days, evil forces are stronger than at other times. That was true of the Walpurgis Night of the 30th of April, when fires were burnt in elevated places to defend against witches. Over time, the “witch-burning” tradition took hold and has endured.
1 May – A Time for Love
On the first of May, girls must be kissed under a blossoming cherry tree in order for them not to wither, but remain beautiful. On this day, lovers in Prague head for Petřín Hill to lay a flower at the monument of Karel Hynek Mácha (1810–1836), a Czech Romantic poet and the author of the poem “Máj” (May). The poem tells a story of the tragic love of two young people, and is one of the classic works of Czech literature. The first of May is also celebrated as the international day of labour.
All Saints’ Day – 1-2 November (Dušičky)
Since 998, the holiday of the deceased has been celebrated on 1 and 2 November. In certain villages, special pastries called “little souls” – dušičky were baked for beggars and travellers. Today, flowers, wreaths, and burning candles are put on graves, to commemorate the dead.
St. Martin’s Day – 11 November
“St. Martin arrives on a white horse” – this saying identifies the festival of St. Martin as the day for the first snowfall. Traditionally, a St. Martin goose and St. Martin pastries used to be eaten. Recent years have seen the increasing popularity of the renewed tradition of opening young “St. Martin” wine, the Czech version of the French Beaujolais Nouveau.
Advent (the four weeks before the Christmas holidays) is a time of fasting and is connected with preparations for Christmas. The name of the season comes from the Latin word adventus and means “arrival” – i.e. the birth of Jesus Christ.
St. Barbara’s Day – 4 December
The holiday of St. Barbara is connected with the cutting of St. Barbara’s branches, referred to as barborky. According to the folk tradition, a branch had to be cut with the first ray of sun, from a cherry tree at least ten years old, and was then to be taken to a house where an unmarried girl lived. If the branch blossomed on Christmas Eve, it meant that the girl would find a groom in the coming year. Today barborky are still a typical pre-Christmas household decoration. In Bohemia, children put stockings in their windows on St. Barbara’s eve, into which St. Barbara puts small sweets, or coal, rocks, or potatoes if the child was naughty in the preceding period.
St. Nicholas’ Day – 6 December
On the eve of this holiday, St. Nicholas and an angel descend from the heavens to Earth, accompanied by a devil. Together, they visit children – praising the good ones and reproaching the naughty ones, telling them to behave better. Children must sing a song or recite a poem (in the past, they prayed and sang carols) to the St. Nicholas group, and in return the angel gives them sweets or toys; the naughty children receive coal or potatoes from the devil. If the procession of St. Nicholas, the angel, and the devil misses one’s house, one may put a stocking in the window, under one’s pillow, or on the door handle for night-time gifts from St. Nicholas.
Christmas – 24 December
In the Czech Republic, the main Christmas holiday is Christmas Eve. On this day, you will encounter fairytales in Czech households, as well as mistletoe, and, naturally, a decorated Christmas tree. There are many traditions connected to Christmas Eve – an all-day fast (one who lasts until the evening will see a golden pig), the casting of lead (to tell the future from the shape of the cast piece), or the throwing of a slipper (if it lands with the toes pointing at the door, it means that the girl in the house will marry within a year). Meatless dishes are served for lunch – peas, barley, or a mushroom casserole. Once the first star comes out, families sit for their Christmas Eve dinner. The festive meal includes fish soup and fried carp with potato salad. Traditional Christmas cookies are served as dessert. After dinner, the family gathers at the Christmas tree, under which the Baby Jesus puts presents.
25 December is the first Christmas holiday – Christmas Day. Families meet for lunch – most often, a roast duck or goose are served, with dumplings and cabbage. On 26 December, St. Stephen’s Day, the second Christmas holiday is celebrated. On this day, carollers used to go from house to house carolling – singing and wishing health and success in farming. For their carols, they received fruit, money, or an invitation to come to the house for refreshments.
New Year’s – 1 January
The most broadly known motto for this day is: “Throughout the whole year, as on New Year’s Day”. Traditionally, lentils or peas are served on New Year’s Day, to ensure the multiplication of money. No poultry is made, so that “luck would not fly away”. 1 January is also a national holiday – The Day of the Renewal of an Independent Czech State.
Three Kings – 6 January
The end of the Christmas season takes place on 6 January, with the commemoration of the arrival in Bethlehem of the three wise men from the east – the Three Kings, called Caspar, Melichar, and Balthazar in Czech. The Three Kings go from house to house and write (using consecrated chalk) the letters K+M+B on doors – it is, however, to denote the Latin words “Christus mansionem benedicat” – May Christ bless this house."