Czech Heritage Society Harris County Chapter

Christmas Dinner Customs

Czech Christmas dinner (December 24) is connected with a great number of different customs, rules and superstitions. Very few of them are still observed today, and for good reason. It must have been quite a challenge to put the dinner together and go through with it without a mistake if all the customs were to be followed!

  • No lights should be lit in the house before the first star comes out. After it does, dinner is served.
  • The table should be set for an even number of guests. An odd number brings bad luck or death.
  • An extra plate can be used to even out the number of guests. An extra plate should also be prepared in case an unexpected guest or a person in need comes by the house at dinner time.
  • The legs of the table can be tied with a rope to protect the house from thieves and burglars in the coming year.
  • No one should sit with their back to the door.
  • Christmas dinner should consist of nine courses including soup, bread with honey, carp, potato salad, fruit (dried, fresh or canned), dessert (apple strudel or vánocka - Christmas bread), and other foods.
  • No alcohol should be served on Christmas Eve.
  • No one should ever get up from the Christmas table before dinner is finished. Doing so brings bad luck and death in the family.
  • Everyone should finish their dinner and leave nothing on the plate.
  • The first person to leave the table after dinner will be the first one to die in the coming year - that is why everyone should get up from the table at the same time.
  • Any leftovers from dinner (crumbs, fishbones, etc.) should be buried around the trees to ensure they will bear lots of fruit.
  • All household animals should be fed after dinner so that no one goes hungry on Christmas Eve.

Easter Customs (Velikonoce) 
by Dana Shanberg

When I was growing up in Czechoslovakia in the years before 1989, the meaning of Easter (Velikonoce - from Veliké noci, or Great Nights) was limited to the welcoming of Spring. The religious connotations of Easter were suppressed under the communist regime. Nowadays, Czechs are again aware of the religious origin of Easter, but Easter has not become a serious religious holiday.

Easter Eggs and kraslice

The hand-painted or otherwise decorated egg (kraslice) is the most recognizable symbol of Czech Easter. Girls decorate Easter eggs to give them to boys on Easter Monday. There are many Easter egg decorating techniques and the more elaborate ones require certain levels of skill. Different materials can be used, such as bee's wax, straw, watercolors, onion peels, picture stickers. There are no limitations to creating pretty, colorful eggs.

Pussywillow and pomlázka

Young live pussywillow twigs are thought to bring health and youth to anyone who is whipped by them. An Easterpomlázka (from pomladit or "make younger") is a braided whip made from pussywillow twigs. It has been used for centuries by boys who go caroling on Easter Monday and symbolically whip girls on the legs.

In the past, pomlázka was also used by the farmer's wife to whip the livestock and everyone in the household, including men and children. There would be no Czech Easter without the pomlázka.

The origin of the pomlázka tradition (meaning both the whip and the tradition itself) dates back to pagan times. Its original purpose and symbolic meaning is to chase away illness and bad spirits, and to bring health and youth for the rest of the year to everyone who is whipped with the young pussywillow twigs. Boys would whip girls lightly on the legs and possibly douse them with water, which had a similar symbolic meaning.

Dousing

Dousing a girl with water has a similar symbolic meaning as the pomlázka.

The Color Red

Red and other bright colors symbolize health, joy, happiness and new life that comes with the Spring.

The Days before Easter Sunday (the following is based on my experience of Easter in the Northern Moravia region)

Children finish school on Ugly Wednesday (Skareda streda), which is a good idea because they need to spend some serious time on making Easter what it should be. In the evening of Green Thursday (Zeleny ctvrtek), every boy in the village equips himself with a wooden rattle (rehtacka), which is specially made for the purpose. The boys form a group and walk through the village, rattling their rattles vigorously, so the noise can be heard from afar. The meaning of the rattling is to chase away Judas. The same procedure repeats on Good Friday (Velky patek) and one more time on White Saturday (Bila sobota), when the boys don't only walk through the village, but stop at every house in the morning and rattle until they're given money, which they then split among themselves.