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Archive for December, 2008

Christmas and New Year are occasions for great family celebrations.  The Czech and Slovak nations, after their Christianization in the ninth and tenth centuries, incorporated some of their pre-Christian customs pertaining to the New Year celebration into the holidays.

One such custom is looking into the future.  Village girls cut a hole into the village fish pond, or in the well, and hope to see reflected the face of the man they will marry.   If an apple cut in half reveals a star, without worm damage, then a healthy year ahead is predicted.

Christmas holidays were also an occasion to say goodbye to deceased members of the family.  In some regions, plates with food would be placed on the table for the departed family members.  Hopefully, the deceased would see from the heavens that their departure had not changed the place they held in the minds and hearts of their relatives.

Christmas time served as a time for reaffirmation of Christian(and pre-Christian) values of charity.  All beggars and other poor people in the village got food.  Domestic animals had to share the feast as well.  Cows, goats, dogs, and poultry got, at least, some crumbs from the festive table.  Bees got sugar or sugar water.  Some food was thrown into the well so that “it would not dry out”.

Often, Christmas food was sprinkled with holy water before being eaten, transferring it’s blessing into the people.

In the olden times people did not give each other gifts other than food.  During the winter months, this constituted the most appreciated gift anyway.  In somewhat later times, articles of clothing, often homemade, began to be exchanged.  Many of these hand-made items were intricately embroidered, therefore, highly valued.

Evergreen Christmas trees were introduced into Bohemia as well as into much of the rest of Europe from Scandinavia and Germany.  Before they had Christmas trees, Czechs and Slovaks used wreaths made from evergreen branches.  They hung the branches under the ceiling and decorated them with fruits and baked goodies.  In some Slovak regions, people cut small trees and placed them in water indoors so that they would blossom.

Since the introduction of Christmas trees into these lands, the trees often have been decorated with colorful paper, tinsel, and cookies.  On the top of the tree, families often hang a crystal bell to help them detect when the children were stripping the trees of goodies.

The Slovak and Czech Christmas season ends with the feast of the Three Wise Men on the 6th of January.  Children, dressed as these Wise Men, go singing carols in the neighborhood and are rewarded with nuts, candy, and cookies.

Nowadays, Christmas celebration in the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic starts on Christmas Eve, when a traditional meal of fish and potato salad are served.  After that the children open their presents, and later, the adults go to midnight mass.  Christmas Day is spent leisurely, at home or visiting relatives.  It is the time when dieting is postponed until the New Year’s Day resolution.  Chlebicky(open face sandwiches) and cookies are placed on the table to tempt and seduce everyone in the family or among visitors.  There must be either seven or twelve sorts of cookies to secure good luck for the family.

New Year’s Day is a secular celebration in the Slovak and Czech lands.  It is the time for parties, more food, and some drinks, including wine for the midnight toast.  A midnight kiss, the first of the year, is reserved for the loved person.  Then every person of the opposite sex may be kissed, and the husbands and wives are not supposed to be jealous.

Activities which are done on New Year’s Day are supposedly the activities people will have to do every day of the rest of the year.

During olden times, in the villages the garda or hospodar(the farmer) would pull out his plough and make a symbolic round of his field.  Nowadays, people prefer to take the day leisurely, curing their headaches and hoping that there will not be too much work to do during the rest of the New Year.

Miluse Saskova-Pierce – 1985

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