Each year I think, "this year I'll have time to document all the cool Christmas goings-on in the Czech Republic," but often in the swirl of Christmas concerts, teaching, shopping, Christmas market going, and so forth, it doesn't happen.  So allow me to share now some of the activities that I've enjoyed in my European Christmases over the years.

Christmas Markets
Mulled wine, mistletoe. toasty braziers, hot mead, advent wreaths, warm cinnamony pastries, grilled sausages, and Czech Christmas carols floating over it all -- what's not to love about a Czech Christmas market?  Any town/city with a square and a large enough population seems to host at least one Christmas market, if only for part of the Advent season.  Usually a large Christmas tree is accompanied by stalls selling seasonal food and warm beverages alongside other stalls full of Christmas decorations and potential Christmas gifts.  Different towns have their own local touch, but whether bathed in morning sunlight or the twinkle of Christmas lights, it brings on the Christmas mood.

This year I went with my friend Vanessa to Brno for their markets.  While I was on a bus to a train station, I heard a little girl exclaim, "we're going on a trip by train!" and I felt exactly the same way.  It's delightful to visit another town just to see the market and do some Christmas shopping.  Though the crowds were a bit cumbersome, it added to the atmosphere to see so many busy holiday shoppers.

Tree Lighting Ceremonies
Christmas markets are often opened with a tree lighting ceremony in the square, not unlike the traditions of many American small towns or big cities.  This year I happened to be leaving work at 4:45 PM on a day when they were to light the city hall square's Christmas tree.  With a countdown, children released balloons and the organizers on all other accompanying lights at the same time; the effect was delightful.


The families might not decorate their Christmas trees till Christmas Eve here, but the shops are happy to decorate in mid-late November.  With no Thanksgiving barrier to stop them, shops start looking festive early.  Once while at a Thanksgiving celebration with many Czech-American couples in attendance, there was a heated discussion about when is an appropriate time to decorate the home for Christmas.  There was a pretty strong division between the Americans (anytime after Thanksgiving) and the Czechs (Christmas Eve please). As a child, I adored sleeping in the living room throughout December so I could fall asleep to the glowing tree and look at the mounting pile of gifts.  I'm thankful that my husband is open to decorating early.

Advent Wreaths and Mistletoe
Mistletoe, that romantic parasite, can be found in every Christmas market, whether natural or spray-painted silver or gold.  Superstition says the more berries, the better (it symbolizes coins and prosperity of course).  These are usually sold alongside Advent wreaths, which are bought and lit by believers and nonbelievers alike.

Christmas baking
Perhaps you recall my mention in past years, but Czech women are masters of Christmas baking.  Tiny, detailed Christmas sweets are their specialty - they're smaller, so you can taste them all!  Though I know some American moms who bake up a storm all December, I was amazed in my first years here by the detail put into the decoration ("try to do it neatly" said a colleague to me while decorating together - and me an art teacher!) as well as the variety of sweets baked ("I only managed to bake four kinds this year," lamented one friend ashamedly).  Gingerbread shows off detailed swirls and lines and hazelnuts and rum abound in the goodies. Yesterday I baked gingerbread, vanilla "mini-rolls" (to translate literally), and coconut balls/marbles (again a literal translation that doesn't sound so appealing) with a friend and her two children.  Altogether it was about 4 hours of work using dough she'd prepared the night before.  Next weekend I plan to bake with a whole clan of women.  Each of us will bring prepared dough so that we can bake and decorate a huge variety and then divide our spoils.

Concerts and Performances
My school hosts a primary Christmas concert and a secondary Christmas party each year, which often features a student display of talent.  These events accompany the many other concerts available throughout December, whether at a Christmas market, a church, or a concert hall.  This year the husband and I went to Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker together.  Baby kicked a lot during the fight between the mice and the Nutcracker, so perhaps he/she's enthusiastic for future performances as well and we can make a family tradition.  There's no lack of Christmas concerts and advent services. One year I sang with a choir in my church's English advent service and another I sang in a concert with a gospel choir.  This year I'll sing at the Christmas Eve service with our small choir.

Advent Calendars
In November, shops start to carry small cardboard advent calendars as well as chocolates shaped like St. Nicholas, a devil, and an angel (see next paragraphs).  As a friend commented yesterday, "the chocolate in those calendars is usually disgusting."  Well, it's hard for anything sweet to be gross to a child, especially if hidden behind a number within a lovely Christmas-themed picture.  Various families honour the advent calendar tradition and this year I decided to make my husband an "advent bag."  Given our not-totally-settled-in state, I didn't want to mount anything on a wall or set up gifts in an flat which awaits being painted or which we won't be at during the week.  So my solution was to use the same festive red gift bag each day. Each night I put his gift inside and pin it closed with a clothes pin bearing the number of the day.  Attached to the outside of the bag I pin a daily Bible reading.  I don't know which of us is enjoying it more.

St. Nicholas Day
December 5th is St. Nicholas (Svatý Mikuláš) day in the Czech Republic. In our school, a group of high schoolers will dress up for the day and visit our primary students.  The company includes St. Nicholas, an angel, and a devil.  They play their roles as follows:
"All three characters walk the streets, stopping children and asking them if they were good in the past year. Most kids say yes and sing a song or recite a short poem. They are then rewarded with sweets, candy or other treats, which are handed out by the Angel. Bad kids would be put in the Devil's sack and taken to hell, or would only get a sack of potatoes or coal instead of candy - of course it does not really happen!"                               -
In our school, the teachers might prepare a list of the good/bad actions of students for Nicholas to have in advance and the students end up with a gingerbread or a mandarine. I've heard stories of how families have dressed up to come taunt children with their misdeeds before an uncle dressed as a devil takes away a misbehaving child until she's frightened enough to promise eternal goodness.  I think this is the exception more than the norm.  Today Vanessa remarked that she feels like it's a substitute for stocking stuffers.  Most of my Czech friends just honour the holiday by giving some chocolate or mandarine or gingerbread to their kids and skip the potentially fear-laden lifelong memory.  My husband surprised me with a sparkly hat-mitten set.

This weekend is Advent Sunday number two and I hope to thoroughly enjoy the Advent and Christmas traditions yet to come.


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