The festive period is well and truly over (Happy New Year, everyone!) – but why should that stop us reflecting over the good vibes in this rainy January? I’m half Czech, so my Christmas has a few cultural quirks (in the eyes of British traditions) which I’m very fond of.
The Czech comes from my mother’s side, and the English from my dad’s. To keep traditions and culture standing strong, we make a hybrid Christmas. People in England have always generally acted surprised and/or perplexed at the Czech way of doing things. But it’s the case with most of Europe. The French, Croatians, Polish and more all open their presents on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day, too. I have always maintained that Christmas Eve is my Christmas: I count down to Christmas Eve, the most excitable day for me is Christmas Eve, delicious food is on Christmas Eve (actually it’s both, best of both worlds!).
After dinner on Christmas Eve – which I will go on to explain later – we settle around the Christmas tree with all the presents underneath and open them. Not only is it not on Christmas Day, but it’s also not in the morning. The story goes, at least in Czech Republic, that Jesus (yes, the big man himself) brings the presents to place sneakily under the tree while the family are having dinner on Christmas Eve.
Where’s Santa, you ask? Well, in Czech Republic it’s St. Nicholas, called Mikuláš, and he pays his visit on 5 December. He has a little mischievous
accompaniment called Čert (devil), who sets things straight by giving the naughty children coal. Here, it isn’t that you get either coal or presents – it’s a balance. No child is purely good or bad, so you are given presents from Mikuláš for the good things and coal from Čert for the bad things you’ve done (who may also tell you off for your behaviour and chase you. Perhaps a frightening concept for a child). There’s a third party in this parade, an angel named Anděl, representing the good.
You can see how the concept is the similar but the key players and dates/times are all rearranged – I’ve always found this really fascinating and love that there are different versions of the same story that nationalities grow up believing/knowing. And yet when we hear of the other versions, some of us think “What? How could you do it like that? That’s not how it goes!” It’s all relative and I’ve loved growing up with an amalgamation of traditions.
Every year, food is increasingly becoming my favourite part about Christmas. We still have the whole turkey shabang on Christmas Day, which of course I love, but the Czechs have an equally important and delicious meal on Christmas Eve. I introduce you to carp. Generally known as a fish that you would just, well, fish but not eat, we have to go to a special shop in order to get this sparsely stocked meat.
We bread the chopped slices (drying out bread and grating the crumbs ourselves) after dipping in eggs and flour, then fry it. It’s wondrously delicate, and although you have to watch out for bones, it melts effortlessly in your mouth. Carp is the centrepiece of our Czech shenanigans, but nearly stealing the spotlight are schnitzels: chicken (or pork) covered in the same way as the carp. Schnitzels are done a lot in our family, so they don’t bring the magic around a special occasion that carp does – but they are good! Also with this, we have my mum’s potato salad. I couldn’t possibly recite the recipe (mainly because I can’t remember absolutely everything that goes in there), but it’s a favourite amongst the Powley family and typically part of this Czech Christmas meal.
Christmas Day is the Day of the Turkey, of course. And we all know how that goes, so I don’t have to explain it. People used to ask what I do all day Christmas Day if I don’t open presents… well, I do the other things Christmas is all about. I spend it with my family, make cocktails, admire the presents I already opened and watch the festive TV.
First thing in the morning, we have a champagne breakfast with bagels, cream cheese and smoked salmon – not a Czech tradition, but one for the Powleys every Christmas and birthday. My mum puts together chlebíčky, essentially an open sandwich with a few food items on top. We have it on a baguette slice with a dollop of potato salad, ham beside it, which has a cube of cheese, part of a boiled egg (I prefer it when it’s still a bit runny inside) and a little slice of a gherkin. There’s a lot going on and it makes a lovely snack.
If any of you have been to Czech Republic, you will know they love their dumplings. They can come in all sorts of forms with an array of sauces – my favourite is Svíčková s knedlíky. This is bread dumplings with an indescribably delicious white creamy sauce served with venison (can be beef). This is our usual meal on Boxing Day, and we throw in the English tradition of crackers, too. Really mixing it up in one meal.
Everyone loves their traditions at Christmas – it’s one of those times to welcome routine, when it’s always exciting. The whole vibe of Christmas is one of my favourites: the majority of people being happy together – with all these different traditions and cultures, too? It’s pretty incredible, really.
What are your traditions over Christmas? Do you do something a bit different/unique because of where you’re from/your heritage?
I hope you all have a fantastic 2014. It’s been quite the 2013!