Commentary/Life as an Expat: Traditional Czech holiday rites used to predict future

“Carp! You eat carp for Christmas dinner?” I exclaimed, not believing my ears. In an English class at the Holešov Gymnázium in Czech Republic, we were discussing Christmas traditions. One of the best parts of being an expat and living abroad was learning about cultures that were new to me.

“Yes,” the students explained, “they sell them in barrels at the market and Mom and Dad buy a live one and keep it in the bathtub until Christmas Eve. No one can take a bath for a few days,” All the students chuckled with delight when one boy said that the fish often tried to escape by jumping out of the tub. I recently learned about a woman from Poland who also mentioned having carp for special occasions. So perhaps that is a fairly widespread tradition in parts of Europe.

I also was to learn that for Czechs, Christmas Eve is when they celebrate Christmas. My students explained that Christmas Eve was considered by their ancestors to be the most magical night of the year. They believed the natural elements were much stronger than at other times. So it is understandable why they don’t view Christmas as the 25th as we do in our culture.

One of their many holiday customs is making boats out of walnut shells.

“According to tradition, sailing a boat with a lit candle can predict the future or answer questions. But people have to follow a few rules,” my family host, Ivan Zelinski, explained. “First, anyone who wants to predict the future must make the boat themselves and put it on the water. A walnut half is emptied of its nut, and then a small candle is secured in it. Water played a major role in Christmas divination, thanks to its cleansing and healing powers. The walnut was seen in folk culture as a symbol of strength, wealth and success.” And this, I think, is the most beautiful part: “The candle symbolizes sacrifice, giving its light to others and burning itself in the process.”

Family members put their boats in a large glass bowl filled with water. If a boat stays near the bowl’s edge there will be no changes — you will stay at home. Boats that touch each other foretell that love and good relationships will occur. There are numerous other predictions, and the person whose candle stays lit the longest is predicted to have a long and happy life ahead.

Another unusual way of looking into the future at this time of year is to melt lead and drop it into water to create various forms. I can’t say how the predictions happen, but the shapes the metal takes are beautiful and worthy of becoming jewelry items themselves.

While I lived in CZ in the mid 1990s, there wasn’t much of a focus on the Nativity that I was aware. Perhaps that was a result of living under communism for so long. Zdena, a Czech teacher who was my mentor at school, was a devout Catholic. But in order to worship in church, she had to go to other towns where she was a stranger. It was safer that way. Fortunately, that changed after the fall of communism, and she was free to attend church in her hometown. I was told that Czechoslovakia suffered severely under communism — even more so than other Eastern Bloc countries.

You may be wondering about Christmas trees and outdoor lighting decorations. There were very few outdoor lights, although I was lucky enough to live right across the street from the only house that put up such lights in our neighborhood. I could sit at my bedroom desk, look out the window at them and dream of home. I told the lady who lived there how much I appreciated them because they made me feel less homesick. She very kindly told me, “If you come back next year, they will be here for you again.”

Once I went with Czech friends in Prague when they bought their tree. The lot had many trees, but most would be considered by Americans to be “Charlie Brown” type evergreens.

Now all these years later, much has changed. Christmas trees are every bit as posh as the ones we have here, and towns are absolutely beautiful at the holiday season. You can see wonderful displays online by going to live webcams.

The Christmas decoration in the town squares are already up. On Thursday, I watched online as a tree was being decorated in Piran, Slovenia. Fun to see! Other town squares to check out are in Holešov, Kromeríž, and Zlín in CZ. I am sure there are many, many more. Have some fun, go explore — it will put you in the spirit of the season. But keep in mind the nine-hour time difference — when it is morning here it is evening in Europe.

One hears much about European Christmas markets. I attended one in Prague’s Old Town Square. While it was lovely and happily busy with many evening shoppers, it couldn’t compare with the elaborate ones I saw in Vienna. But those are a topic for another installment.

While living there, I found the people of the Czech Republic are among the warmest, most generous, loving and caring people I have ever met. I have been blessed to know them. The young couple with whom I lived now have two daughters, and we keep in touch almost weekly. If I continue writing these columns (and if you continue reading them) you will get to know Zelinski and his wife Martina quite well.

Have a wonderful, blessed and beautiful Christmas everyone!

Johnson, 79, of Grangeville, worked in three different European countries — Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovenia — in the 1990s and early 2000s. She can be reached at


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