In the previous post, I wrote about the skánzen in Stražníce. The day I visited the skánzen is one of my favorite memories from living in the Czech Republic. Skánzen are living museums where people are dressed in kroj (or traditional Czech clothing) and proceed through their day as if they were living in the 1800’s. The older women shuck beans, men tend to livestock, and younger women bake for the holidays. Each of the buildings, farm equipment, linens, and cookware are all preserved artifacts donated by local persons or exact replicas.
The day was December 6th, Sváty Mikulaš Den or Saint Nicholas day. Everyone was busy getting ready for Christmas, or so I thought, but this day is also a holiday widely celebrated in Czech Republic. December 6th is the day that kicks off all the Chrismas festivities, and as I explored the museum I noticed some interesting things:
There were three people in costumes, not in kroj, but costumes like you would see on Halloween in the States. First, there was a man in red bishop’s robes, with a white beard, tall hat, and staff. On either side of Saint Nicholas is an angel and a devil acting upon his judgement. The angel wore all white with wings and halo. She had golden curls and a star on her forehead. The devil was all black with a mangy black wig. He was very dirty, like a breathing piece of coal.
On that particular day, there were children from all the local schools. The trio traveled house to house giving verdicts to the children on their behavior. The children would sing Saint Nicholas songs to try to get in his good graces. If they were naughty, they were marked with soot on their foreheads and given coal or spoiled potatoes (the mark of a truly naughty child) . But if they were good, they received a white mark and sweets, usually dried apples and nuts.
I was marked naughty, but I still got sweets and an invitation to warm around the fire with the actors. A flask of Becherovka (a Czech liquor made with anise) was passed around as an adult treat. The group asked me many questions about who I was and why I came to Stražníce. They were all very nice and welcoming and even offered to give me a private tour of the rest of the museum. I learned how to cast iron (for good luck and a good marriage); how to make wooden ornaments with a tiny hand saw; and how to cut cut an apple in half correctly to ensure good fortune for the year. I also got to meet some of the folk dancers and sing a few Czech carols (called koledy).
The idea of a Christmas figure giving judgement on behavior and gifts is not unfamiliar to Americans. We usually think of this person as Santa. Santa is elusive. He lives at the North Pole and can see our every good or bad move (which he also keeps a list of) in order to determine if we should get gifts when he flies across the world. Children never see Santa, but songs, books, and tales from our parents allow us to believe as children. We are told that if we don’t behave throughout the year Santa will put us on the naughty list and we will get coal in our stocking.
These ideas have many parallels to Central European and Czech Christmas traditions. In the Czech and Slovak Republics St. Nicholas gives the judgement, but it is his helpers the angel and devil who give gifts or coal. The devil is not unlike the Northern European Krampus who only judges the bad children by putting them in his sack and carrying them home to eat (okay, maybe they only look similar).
Children do not receive gifts from Santa on Christmas Eve either, but get them from Baby Jesus. This can seem odd because the Czech Republic is admittedly one of the most secular and non-religious countries in the world. I was told by a German friend that Jesus brings gifts because Martin Luther discouraged the figure of St. Nicholas during the Protestant Reformation, accounting for the change of date from December 6th to December 24th, which is the day we celebrate Jesus’s birth. The Czech Republic became Catholic in the 7th Century and then was instrumental in early Protestantism during the Hussite Revolution in the 14th Century (200 years before the rest of Europe). It stayed a religious country until the 20th century, which may account for both traditions still being celebrated today.
Those of you who have Czech ancestry may remember this tradition. How did your family celebrate Sváty Mikulaš? And how does if differ from the traditional holiday?