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An expat’s guide to the Central European holiday.
Early December

Understand that for Czechs, Christmas begins on December 5th. Pockmarked teens traipse through Prague dressed as angels, devils, and St. Nicholas in search of small children. Sounds creepy, so make sure to ask your Czech friends to explain the significance of this age-old tradition:

    You: “What do the children have to do if stopped by these oddly dressed teenagers?”

    Czech dude/lady: “They must recite a poem or sing a song, to prove how good they have been this year. Then they get candy.”

    You: “And what if they haven’t been good?”

    Czech dude/lady: “They receive a potato, before getting sent to Hell in a burlap sack.”

Happy St. Mikuláš Day.

Later, discover that your host family has decided to throw a St. Mikuláš party of their own. Foreign friends and family gather their toddlers together for what is sure to be a wonderful holiday memory. Remember when your drunk uncle would sneak away during dinnertime and return dressed as Santa Claus, jovially doling out presents to your bratty cousins? This is similar to that, but much, much more terrifying.

Hear a knock at the door. Watch as the rambunctious toddlers scatter about your host flat, hiding under couches, clutching to their parents for dear life. Listen to the howl coming from beyond the door:

    “BIBLAH, BIBLAH, BIBLAH!”

Your host mother has invited the Devil to visit tonight. Not the cartoony, red-faced, goatee-sporting Americanized version of a devil — this Czech manifestation arrives covered in rags, face blackened with grease paint, spiraled horns protruding from a frizzy afro wig.

Laugh a little bit as tear-stained youngsters shakily recite their poems while eyeing the dreaded potato sack.

Mid-December

Follow your host mother to the local market a week before Christmas. Watch her bargain with a fishmonger in Czech as she points to a large bucket of fish. So mom wants carp tonight…maybe this is like going to a fancy restaurant where you get to choose your favourite lobster to later be boiled alive. Be surprised the next time you attempt to take a shower, discovering the fish your host mother haggled for is now swimming in your bathtub.

Quietly decline when your host father offers you the chance to bash the carp’s brains in with a wooden mallet three days later.

Christmas Eve

Decide between two participation options:

Option 1: Hustle the kids outside into the freezing cold. Force them to stare at the sky until they see Ježíšek, or “flying baby Jesus” — he’s the one bringing the presents. Even if they say they’ve spotted him, tell them to keep looking — you’re stalling while the others set up inside. Tell the kids to watch for something ridiculous, like a flaming ball of fire, or a rocket ship, or baby Jesus flying like Superman.

Option 2: Stick around inside the house with your host dad, rapidly assembling the entire Christmas tree, presents, and general festive ambiance before the kids come trampling through the front door for their gifts. A cold sweat starts to form as you wonder, “Oh God, what if they spot the flying baby Jesus before I’m done?!”

Later, sit down to a full Czech Christmas dinner. There’s potato salad, boiled red cabbage, and hard, sticky holiday sweets. Your buddy the carp stares you in the face, deep-fried and delicious looking. Put aside your reservations and take a bite — sorry fishy, but you taste damn good.

Watch your host family exchange a humbling set of gifts: stockings filled with clementines. A picture frame of the entire family from their vacation to Greece. Wooden alphabet blocks. St. Nikolas made of tin and stuffed with sweets. Feel loved as your host mother hands you a small, brightly wrapped box.

Laugh at the potato resting on a bed of delicate tissue paper. Your host siblings smile as they stand before you, potato sack opened and waiting for you to hop in.

It’s been a naughty year, after all.

Culture GuidesExpat Life


 

About The Author

Katka Lapelosa

Katka is a Contributing Editor and the Social Media Manager for Matador Network. She is based in New York and has worked in the travel industry for the past five years. Other contributions include articles for Vittana, Thought Catalog, Travel Fashion Girl, Yelp!, Where’s Cool?, TripAha! and more. Read more about how awesome she is at katkatravels.com.

  • Anonymous

    Most Czechs I know would consider themselves Central (not Eastern) Europeans.

    • Katka Lapelosová

      You’re absolutely right – I will send a note to the editor. Thanks for letting me know of the typo!

  • Candice Walsh

    These are all so much cooler than any North American Christmas tradition.

    • Katka Lapelosová

      lol maybe except for the “going to hell in a burlap sack” deal. That devil is pretty terrifying, here’s a video of my host brother reciting his poem in tears: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q5grRXnE1BQ

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