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Old Czech Traditions

They are only rarely kept today, but are still interesting...

Christmas Eve used to be a day of strict fasting in the past, accompanied by a slew of folk traditions from manifold superstitions to poetic customs. Parents promised their children that they would see a golden piglet if they keep the fast. People also believed that there could not be an odd number of people sitting at a Christmas table therefore, they would be sure to invite guests ahead of time. Dinner has always been plentiful with several courses. The old traditional meals included Cerny Kuba (Black Jack or barley and mushroom casserole), pea or lentil soup, fruit, nuts, apples, roasted flat bread. Sometimes people would eat fish but it was not very common, as it was thought to be a meal fit for fasting. Not until the 19th century did carp find its way onto the Czech Christmas table.

Folk traditions and superstitions
Christmas Eve according to the popular belief, was an ideal day for performing various folk customs. These fall in three groups: taboos, fortune telling and superstitions concerning fertility and abundance.

Taboos
These were most often connected with St Lucille’s Day, Christmas Eve, Holy Innocents and The Magi. Some of them manifest a visible connection with worshiping the souls of the dead. The taboo of sweeping on Christmas Eve was based on the belief that sweeping could injure the souls of dead ancestors, whom may take revenge on the perpetrator later. For the same reason the following activities were also considered taboo: lifting fallen objects, painting walls, milling grain, crushing fruit, pouring water on the courtyard, getting up from a table quickly (this has persisted to this day) and throwing ashes away. Work taboos - spinning, winding, weaving, knitting, sewing, threshing - also to prevent injuries to the souls of the dead. The revenge of these souls could manifest itself later by producing a poor crop (flax, hemp or grain). Holy Innocents (December 28): people were not allowed to wash laundry, because the laundresses would then be tired the following year, as would the livestock and in addition, the livestock would limp. Washing laundry was prohibited because it was believed that this washing was done in the blood of murdered innocents and they, in turn, would then be unhappy. Sewing was banned because this would cause children to have their eyes poked and if the lady of the house were to get up before Christmas dinner was finished, the hens would refuse to sit on their eggs. Christmas Eve is abound with multiple taboos - no buying, selling, borrowing, lending, sneezing or sitting across from a door. These taboos were taken seriously, as no one wanted to invite bad luck, disaster, bad crops or the wrath of the spirits.

Fortune telling
Fortune telling has always intrigued people. A seemingly dead twig when put in water in a warm room, sprouted leaves and bloomed. This twig is called "barborka", because it should be cut from a fruit tree on St Barbara’s Day. Sometimes girls would cut more than one, each representing a different boy and the one which would bloom first would symbolize her future fiancé. There were several superstitions concerning marriage - the shaking of a bush or a fence which would reveal the direction the fiancé would be coming from. The girls would say: "I’m shaking this fence, calling on all my saints. Let the dog bark, where my love is today." This fortune telling also involved family members. People would place candles in walnut shells and put these “boats” on the water.  By what the boat did on the water, or whether the candle would go out or reach the shore, people could see their destiny. Pouring hot lead in water, a person’s future could be foretold for the coming year by the shape the lead would create. If a cross is revealed in the middle of an apple it means illness or death, while a star brings good luck and wealth. People to this day split apples in half for this reason.

Securing fertility and abundance
Leftovers from Christmas dinner were buried in the ground and under trees as a sacrifice. Livestock received special treatment too - cows got bread with parsley, rose-hips and butter, so as to have enough milk in the coming year. The farmer would knock on his beehive, so the bees would survive the winter. Poultry - hens would get a mixture of grain, peas and barley to lay more eggs. Roosters and ganders were given garlic to make them brave and healthy.
In the morning people would wash in the river or their well to be healthy throughout the year. Burning incense in churches and frankincense at homes were purgative rituals. These are just a selection of customs and superstitions.

Christmas and Easter are two of the main holidays in the Christian year. They are based on the biblical story of the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ. The Czech name for Christmas - Vánoce - indicates a number of holy nights (noc = night). Today however, only three days are widely known - Christmas Eve (December 24), The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ (December 25) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26). The 25th and 26th of December are holidays which are marked by families visiting each other, family lunches and dinners. Usually the traditional Czech roasted goose, duck or turkey with sauerkraut and dumplings is served. People also visit churches where Nativity scenes are displayed.