What could possibly make the most beautiful city in the world any more gorgeous? You guessed it; Christmas markets! Sure, Christmas markets aren’t uniquely Czech, but they sure do enhance the experience of visiting the Golden City during the holidays.
Christmas markets are great for getting souvenirs and tasty seasonal food. On almost every major square in Prague you’ll find a bustling market to visit, but particularly Old Town and Wenceslas Squares. They open up every year starting on the 26th of November to the 6th of January. You can also find some smaller markets on Kampa Island, Náměstí Republiky (Republic Square), and including the Prague Castle, right in front of the St. George Basilica. For a more “local” experience, check out the markets on Anděl and Náměstí Míru.
Speaking of Wenceslas, the old Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas” is about the Czech patron saint. The popular holiday tune tells of the “Good King” journeying afar, giving alms to the poor. The text was written by English hymnwriter John Mason Neale, and the music came from an old 13th century spring song called "Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering"). Czech sources say that Neale’s lyrics were translated from the poem “Sankt Wenceslaw und Podiwin” written by Czech poet, Václav Alois Svoboda.
Christmas time in Prague is a magical time, and also very cold. You will definitely want to bring warm clothes when you come to visit as temperatures usually range from the average high 2°C/36°F and average low -2°C/28°F. Usually there is also a lot of snow, which makes the city glitter even more.
Two main holidays are celebrated in December. First, there’s St. Nicholas’ Day, then there’s Christmas. Both holidays are according to Christian tradition.
St. Nicholas Day – Mikuláš
Saint Nicholas Day is on the 6th of December, but the celebrating of it begins on the eve thereof (5th). It’s quite a blast being in the country during this celebration! You will see groups of three people dressed up as Saint Nicholas, the devil (čert), and an angel (anděl), all walking the the streets. Parents are also outside with their children, and Saint Nicholas will stop them and ask the children if they’ve been good or not. Usually they reply with a “yes,” and then they’re rewarded with candy by the angel. If for whatever reason the child responds by saying “no,” then the devil will give them potatoes or coal (although technically he’s supposed to put them in his sack and drag them to hell!).
Krampusnacht, which is in conjuction with the tradition on the 5th, is celebrated in different parts of the country, including Prague. People will go around dressing has the terriying Krampus (the demonic companion of St. Nikolas, or the čert) from German folklore. You will find that the Czechs borrowed a lot of traditions from their neighbor in the west.
In Prague, the children can go out with their parents to Old Town Square from around 5pm to 8pm to experience the tradition. Later that night, the children will clean their shoes and wake up in the morning to find them filled with treats. Depending on the family’s way of practicing the tradition, the treats can also be found in a pillow, or by the window.
The US ‘Santa Claus’ and the British ‘Father Christmas’ derive from the St. Nicholas tradition, although they practice the gift giving part on Christmas instead of on a separate day. Czech kids have it so good! They get a bunch of treats on Saint Nicholas Day, and then on Christmas eve!
Christmas – Vánoce
Christmas is the Christian holiday that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It also happens to be the biggest holiday celebrated in the year. Christmas dinner is on the 24th, with the main dish being fillets of fried carp. If you happen to find yourself wandering into the more local areas of the city, you might come across a vendor with a large tub of live carp. Czechs will buy a couple carp and bring them home, then for the next couple days, carp will be living in bathtubs.
This tradition started in the 19th century. Before, fish used to be a delicacy, but now you can’t have a proper Czech christmas without these local water creatures. Like most Czech meals, they start off with an appetizer. On Christmas, it happens to be carp soup. Then you go onto the main course. Here you can read about a lot of interesting, and sometimes weird, traditions that aren’t really practiced anymore.
After everyone’s done eating, the kids go into a room and look into the sky to see if they can catch a glimpse of Ježíšek (Baby Jesus) coming over. Then a bell will ring and the children go out of the room to find a christmas tree surrounded by presents. When it comes to the christmas tree, it really depends on the family. Some carry the tradition of Ježíšek bringing in the tree with the presents, while others will set up the tree before dinner and have everyone help decorate it.
Fun fact: The tradition of Ježíšek has been observed for more than 400 years by the Czechs. Zachraňte Ježíška (Save Baby Jesus) was a petition launched in 1996 to try restore the tradition that was disappearing after 80 Santa Clauses went to Prague to try and promote the American icon. They found moderate success, but the Zachraňte Ježíška petition came forth as an effort to protect local traditions from western influence. Besides, it was confusing for kids since they already had Mikuláš.