While Adam grew up with ham or turkey at the Christmas table and Kim grew up with summery trifles and carols in the bush, Czechs have fish for Christmas dinner and it all starts in the bathtub!
Last year we were fortunate enough to have been invited to a very Czech Christmas. It was a wonderful feast of both food and hospitality, a meal we will treasure for a long time. This Christmas we are treating the same family that invited us into their home last year, to our home this year, for a mixture of American and Australia treats and traditions. But why do Czechs have carp for Christmas? What is the significance of the fish, and what are their Christmas traditions?
"The Carp is perhaps one of the oldest domesticated fish species and forms an indispensable part in the inland fishing industry in Europe. In 2002, the Czech Republic alone exported some 16.6 thousand tons of Carp throughout the continent. Carp cultivation in the Czech lands dates back to more than seven centuries ago while elaborate aquatic conditions were since created and adjusted to accommodate for the popularity of the fish. It has gained a reputation for quality meat, fast growth, and relatively low maintenance needs.
Despite the Carp being here for so long, eating meat in general was considered a luxury, and the custom of eating carp at Christmas Eve was not popular until the 19th century. Most common folk would consume simple dishes like houbová kuba (a mushroom dish), zelná polévka (cabbage soup) and other, predominantly non-meat dishes. The earliest methods of baking the carp were generally done on white wine or vinegar (na modro – on the blue) or alternatively on a sweet prune sauce with ginger bread (na černo – on the black). The custom of frying carp on a large scale is usually attributed to the period immediately after the Second World War. Czechs and Slovaks eat the fried carp with bramborový salát (potato salad) and do so on the 24th of December" (sourced from www.expats.cz).
Now, on the corners of our streets and in the market there are carp sellers who sell fresh carp, swirling around in giant plastic buckets. Some families will buy the whole carp, take it home and pop it in their bathtub to 'clean' it for a few days before doing the deed and preparing it for Christmas. Others will have it scaled and filleted right there and bring home the fresh fish to prepare for Christmas Eve (Štědrý Den or Generous Day). The first time I tried it last Christmas (knowing that I'm an Aussie who's lived near the ocean early all my life), it tasted like a river to me! But, a tastefully prepared river, being battered and fried in 'sadlo' (lard). Our accommodating friends also fried salmon, so there was still fish to eat! It does taste different to saltwater fish, perhaps an acquired taste. It is definitely more fatty and has many, many tiny bones. Thankfully we were given an informative lecture on where they are and how to remove them by our hosts! Another of my Czech friends mentioned that each Christmas on TV there is a report on how many children end up in hospital due to swallowing fish bones each year!
Nothing is wasted with the fish and often fish soup is also prepared for the day. It was thoroughly delicious and reminded me of soups prepared by my own Asian grandmother in Australia. Potato salad is an absolute must, and this year we will be making sure Czech potato salad makes an appearance on our multicultural table! Czech potato salad is a little different to an American potato salad, or an Aussie one. It usually contains carrots, celery and peas and is made with just mayo, without mustard. It is also adorned with some bright, red capsicum/bell peppers. But my favourite thing about it is how tiny everything is cut up. Usually in both Australia and America potato salad contains chunks of potatoes that are about an inch cubed. Here in the Czech Republic the dice is tiny, maybe a centimeter squared, which - for some reason - really makes my heart happy! So, I am super glad our Czech friends are gracing our table with a bramborový salat!
Another new favourite is vanočka, a Christmas sweet braided bread with nuts and fruit. Reminiscent of hot cross buns, Greek Easter bread and challah, the home-made, lovingly prepared vanočka that we were served last Christmas has ruined me for any other attempts. Thankfully, my lovely friend Maruška will be teaching me this week how to replicate her stunning bread.
But this year, we are turning the tables and have two Czech families coming to experience a bit of a different Christmas. There will be a turkey roasting, a sweet potato casserole, maple bacon brussel sprouts, wild rice stuffing, apple pie, an english trifle and steamed pudding with brandy custard - a smattering of dishes from our cultures. We really want to bless the two families that are coming to our home because they both have been instrumental to our settling in to our new home. We are still doing it Czech-style so it will be an all day affair with a good, long walk between lunch and dinner, some carol singing (I've got to get onto learning some Czech Christmas Carols (koledy)!) and the feast. But there will be some traditional American movies playing in the background, and some Bing Crosby in the foreground. I hope there will be a reading of the Christmas narrative in both languages, and hopefully lots of photos to let you in on our celebration.
The people who walked in darkness have see a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
(Isaiah 9:2) What a sweet joy it will be to worship and celebrate God incarnate with our friends. We hope that you and your families enjoy the celebration of Christ's birth as we think upon the great light that has shone into our own lives!
Veselé Vánoce, Merry Christmas!