The traditions of Czech Advent
In two parts we would like to introduce you to some basic Czech traditions and customs that are often older than the oldest written records. Although Christianity was brought to the area of today’s Czech Republic by missionaries St. Cyril and Methodius 1150 years ago, the pagan roots of celebrating the winter solstice are still especially evident in traditional folk customs.
Since the 11th century, Advent has been the preparation for the Christmas season and begins four weeks before Christmas Eve. The most important day of the week is always the Sunday of Advent, when the lighting of all four candles on the Advent wreath begins. In the days of old, Advent was connected to popular folk customs during Lent. Traditional customs are connected with the most beautiful time of the year, such as baking cookies, making ornaments from dried fruit, nuts and straw, lead casting and telling the future, hanging mistletoe over the door and kissing for luck underneath it, lighting candles in the shells of walnuts, and building Nativity scenes.
St. Andrew divination
The first event of Advent was the divination on the feast of St. Andrew, i.e. November 30. Bits of lead were cast and single girls would go out at midnight to shake on fences to see if anyone would come out. They would listen for steps in the direction where their grooms should arrive.
Barboras – twigs and women
On the feast of St. Barbora on December 4, a twig is cut off of a cherry tree at least ten years old come the first rays of sunshine. If the twig, called barborka, bloomed on Christmas Eve, it meant that an unmarried girl would find a groom the next year. As late as the beginning of the 20th century Barboras, called Barborkas, went out on Christmas Eve – barefoot young girls with their hair all done up in white dresses. They scared children with a candle in a big pumpkin and “swept away” evil forces inside homes. They brought nice children candy and fruit; naughty ones got it on their backsides.
St. Nicholas’ gifts
The tradition of St. Nicholas has remained unchanged to the present day. Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in southern Turkey and many legends are told about him. A tradition started in the 15th century in towns and villages to organize parades similar to those for the Carnival season on the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas, i.e. December 5. The Mummers who accompanied St. Nicholas from house to house included dragoons, chimney sweeps, rat-catchers, Turks, death, angels and devils. Today only three of these characters are left: Nicholas, the angel and devil, who go around homes and give away gifts to good children.
St. Ambrose with a broom
On December 7, the feast of St. Ambrose, a tradition was respected at the point where the church was dedicated to this saint. One man dresses up as Ambrose in a long white shirt and black pointy hat with a veil over his face. He carried a bundle of sweets in one hand and a broom covered with paper in the other. At dusk, Ambrose waited for children at the church. The children bravely screamed at him, causing Ambrose to chase them around the church. Here and there he dropped the sweets on the floor. Whoever picked them up got a swat with a broom.
Lucie sips the night away
The last major figure of Advent was St. Lucy, born in 284 A.D. After refusing to wed, Lucy was sentenced to perform prostitution and ended up with her throat cut. The thirteenth of December, the feast day of St. Lucy, used to be the winter solstice at the time of the older Julian calendar. From that time a saying arose: “Lucy sips the night away but the day does not grow longer.” Spinning and plucking feathers were strictly prohibited on the feast day. Lucys, women in white coats with candles in their hands, walked around homes to see if anyone was violating the ban. Their faces were covered with a mask made of wood and paper similar to a stork’s beak and it made an unpleasant clicking sound. Lucys banged on doors and announced: “I’m coming, coming to sip the night away.”