Friday, December 24, 2010

Are you adhering to these Christmas traditions?

I can't believe that I almost forgot to mention these other Czech Christmas traditions!

The Cutting of an Apple
After Christmas dinner, every person present at the table cuts an apple in half (crosswise, from the stem down).  Both halves are shown to everyone around the table.  If the core is shaped as a star, it means that everyone will get together next year in happiness and health.  A four-pointed cross is a bad omen and means that someone at the table will fall ill or die within a year.

The Throwing of a Shoe
An unmarried girl is supposed to throw a shoe over her shoulder and towards the door.  If the shoe lands with the toe pointing towards the door, the girl will marry within a year.

Fish Scales
Fish scales should be placed under Christmas dinner plates or under the tablecloth to bring wealth to the house.  Carrying a fish scale in a wallet all year will ensure that money will not run out.

The Floating of Walnut Shells
Little boats are made out of empty walnut shells and each family member places a little burning candle into a shell.  Everyone's shells are then floated in a bowl of water.  If the shell makes it across the bowl, its owner will live a long and healthy life.  A shell that sinks brings bad luck to its owner.

The Pouring of Lead
A piece of lead is melted over a fire and then poured into a container of water.  The resulting shape will tell the pourer's destiny.

After Christmas dinner, no field is to crossed until midnight mass.  He who does so will die within a year (phew, sure glad I don't live near any fields!)...

A pregnant woman will know whether she is carrying a boy or a girl once the first Christmas Eve visitor enters the house.  If the visitor is male, she will have a son...

He who fails to give a present on Christmas Eve will be met with poverty...

 Certain plants, spices and foods are said to have special qualities and have been an important part of the Czech Christmas celebration throughout history.  Here are a few that should be served at Christmas:

An essential part of Christmas that should not be missing at any Christmas dinner.  It is believed to provide strength and protection.  A bowl of garlic can be placed under the dinner table.

Honey is believed to guard against evil.  A pot of honey can be placed on the dinner table.

Mushrooms give health and strength.  A traditional meal called kuba, prepared from dried mushrooms, barley, garlic, onions, and spices, used to be served as the main meal in the past.  Mushroom soup can be served before dinner.

Sheaf of Grain
A bundle of grain dipped in holy water can be used to sprinkle the house to prevent it from burning down in the coming year.

Poppyseed, peas, wheat, barley
If given to the hens on Christmas Eve, lots of eggs will be laid in the coming year.

Vánočka (Christmas bread)
Feeding a piece of vánočka into the well will ensure good quality of the water.

If the goats are given apples on Christmas Eve, their milk will be sweet.

Veselé Vánoce a šťastný Nový rok!

Today is Štědrý den (Christmas Eve), and I wish each and every one of you a very Veselé Vánoce (Merry Christmas) and šťastný Nový rok (Happy New Year!)

This blogger is taking some time off... see you in 2011!

Happy name Day, Adam & Eva! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Adam & Eva.  Happy Name Day, Adam & Eva!

The name Adam is of Hebrew origin and means "earth".  In Hebrew, it is a generic term for "man".  In the Genesis account, he was the first man created from the red earth of Eden.  The name was borne by a seventh-century Irish abbot of Fermo, Italy.  The name has been steadily used from the middle ages until the 1700s, and again beginning in the 1970s.  It's an appropriate name for the first boy in a family that has produced many girls.

I'm very excited for it to be Eva's name day too because that's my name!  Happy Name Day to me!
The name Eva is also of Hebrew origin and means "life, living one".  Eva was originally the equivalent of Eve in many non-English speaking countries; it was later adopted by English speakers in the mid-19th century. 

Wishing you and yours a wonderful Christmas Eve

Merry Christmas to all!!!

Christmas is a family holiday where no one should stay home alone.  That's why the entire family usually meets at the Christmas dinner table and if someone lives alone, they are invited over by friends or neighbors.  The festive dinner is followed by the special moment that children look forward to all year long - unwrapping the presents from under the tree that were left there by Baby Jesus.  On Christmas Eve, Baby Jesus enters each home when the children are either asleep or occupied.  He lights the candles on the tree as well before disappearing without being seen just before the Christmas bell rings.  When children hear that bell ringing they all rush to the Christmas tree, their smiles wide with delight!  Christmas carols are then usually sung under the lit Christmas tree and at midnight the family attends midnight mass.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Don't be the first to get up from the Christmas Eve dinner table!!

Christmas Eve is a big night for's when we put up our tree, wrap gifts, and prepare and enjoy our Christmas dinner.  It's also connected with a great number of different customs, rules and superstitions - and why wouldn't it be, we're a superstitious bunch!  Very few of these are still observed today, and for good reason.  It must be quite a challenge to put dinner together and go through with it without a mistake if all of the customs were to be followed!  

Here are some of our traditions and superstitions:

  • No lights should be lit in the house before the first star comes out.  After it does, dinner is served.
  • The table should be set for an even number of guests.  An odd number brings bad luck or death.  An extra plate can be used to even out the number of guests.  An extra plate should also be prepared in case an unexpected guest or a person in need comes by the house at dinner time.
  • The legs of the table can be tied with a rope to protect the house from thieves and burglars in the coming year.
  • No one should sit down with their back to the door.
  • Christmas dinner should consist of nine courses including soup, bread with honey, carp, potato salad, fruit (dried, fresh or canned), dessert (apple strudel or vánočka), and other foods.
  • No alcohol should be served on Christmas Eve (gasp!!)
  • No one should ever get up from the Christmas Eve table before dinner is finished.  Doing so brings bad luck and death to the family.
  • Everyone should finish their dinner and leave nothing on the plate.
  • The first person to leave the table after dinner will be the first one to die in the coming year - that is why everyone should get up from the table at the same time.
  • Any leftovers from dinner (crumbs, fishbones, etc.) should be buried around the trees to ensure they will bear lots of fruit.
Apple strudel

Happy Name Day, Vlasta! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Vlasta.  Happy Name Day, Vlasta!
The name Vlasta is of Slavonic origin and means "country, homeland".

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

O' Christmas Tree

While people in the States have had their trees up now for weeks, Czechs typically put their trees up on Christmas Eve (although many people do set them up earlier).  Nativity scenes are arranged, gifts are wrapped, and preparations for Christmas dinner are made.  

The tradition of decorating Christmas trees is not very old in the Czech Republic.  Legend has it that the first Christmas tree in Prague was erected for Christmas in 1812 at the Liben Chateau by the director of the Theater of the Estates, J.K. Leibich, for his guests.  Soon after, the Czech aristocracy and wealthy town people followed his lead and in 1840, the tradition of Christmas tree decorating was widespread. 

In the past, trees were decorated with sweets, various folk ornaments made from wood, gingerbread or dough, although nowadays they have mostly been replaced by blown glass and colorful tinsel.  

However, traditional ornaments made from natural materials are slowly making a comeback, including straw ornaments, apples, nuts and the orange fruit of the Chinese lantern plant.  

It was also customary to fasten real candles to the tree's branches to be lit in the evening , giving Christmas Eve an even greater sense of magic!  Some people still use candles, and they truly are beautiful, but make sure to have a fire extinguisher nearby!

Did you know that originally Christmas trees were  hung tip-down, not standing upright?  
 Just doesn't look right...

Time to make the Vánočka!

A Czech Christmas wouldn't be complete without Vánočka!  What is Vánočka you ask?  Vánočka is our traditional Christmas bread, and it's oh sooooo delicious!  The bread is named after Vánoce, meaning Christmas in Czech (Vianoce in Slovak) and is rich in eggs and butter ...and doesn't butter make everything better?  Lemon rind and raisins give it color and flavor.  It's then braided and baked to a beautiful golden brown.  A vánočka can be built from three progressively smaller braids, stacked on top of each other...this is sometimes interpreted as a rough sculpture of Baby Jesus wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger.
Vánočka has a reputation for being difficult to prepare (I can attest to that...mine did not turn out all). thus in many households superstitions and special customs are attached to the baking process.  When making vánočka, it is said that you must think of everyone dear to you.  Another custom is to avoid touching silver or metal to the vánočka.  Finally, and my personal favorite, the person who is making the vánočka should jump up and down while the dough rises.  Imagine that...

Happy Name Day, Šimon! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Today we honor Šimon.  Happy Name Day, Šimon!
The name Šimon is the Czech form of Simon, which is of Hebrew origin and means "to hear, to be heard; reputation".

Happy Belated Name Day, Natálie! Všechno nejlepší k svátku!

Yesterday we honored Natálie.  Happy Belated Name Day, Natálie!
Natálie is the Czech form of Natalie, which is of Latin origin and means "birthday".  Refers to the birthday of Christ, or Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Infant Jesus of Prague - "the whole of our universe rests in his hands"

In Karmelitská Street in the Lesser Town district of Prague stands the Church of Our Lady of Victory.  It's of quite exceptional significance, not only because of its architecture and artistic decoration, but in particular because it houses the famous statue of the Infant Jesus of Prague.  

Church of Our Lady of Victory

Infant Jesus of Prague
The right hand of the child is raised in blessing, while his left hand holds a sphere surmounted by a cross - the whole of our universe rests in his hands...

The Infant Jesus of Prague receives visitors from all over the world on a daily basis.  People come here to pray for help, healing or peace, and some come to give thanks.  

Visiting the church and Infant Jesus at Christmastime is a tradition...

The Church is beautifully decorated ...

A little history...
The infant Jesus of Prague originally came from Spain.  Legend tells that the Infant Jesus appeared miraculously to a certain monk who modeled the statue based on the appearance of the apparition.  
According to another legend, the statue belonged to St. Teresa of Avia, the founder of the Discalced Carmelites, who was aflame with a great love for the Child Jesus.  She is said to have given the statue to a friend of hers, whose daughter was setting out to travel to Prague.

When the Duchess Maria Manrique de Lara came to Bohemia to marry a Bohemian nobleman in 1556, she received the statue from her mother as a wedding gift.  When her daughter Polyxena of Lobkowicz was widowed, she gave the precious statue to the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites attached to the church of Our Lady of Victory in 1628.

The Carmelites placed the statue in the novitiate chapel so that the young monks could learn from the virtues of the Child Jesus.  At that time, the Thirty Years' War was raging though Europe and even the Infant Jesus was not spared when the Saxon army occupied Prague in 1631.  It was only after his return to Prague in 1637 that Father Cyril of the Mother of God, originally from Luxemburg, discovered the statue, abandoned in a corner.  To his sorrow, however, he found that the Infant Jesus had had both hands broken off.  At this moment it seemed to him that the Infant Jesus was saying to him:

"Have mercy on me and I will have mercy on you.
Give me hands and I will give you peace.
The more you honor me, the more I will bless you."

Eventually Father Cyril had new hands made for the Infant Jesus.  The gold coin invested in this was returned many times over, as the Child Jesus began to bless the monastery, the local people, and the whole of Prague. Miraculous healings were attributed to him, as was the protection of Prague when it was laid siege to by the Swedes in 1639.  In 1651, the statue was carried as a pilgrim round all the churches in Prague and in 1655 it was solemnly crowned by the Bishop of Prague.  This event is still remembered today on the anniversary feast day, falling on the first Sunday in May.

Church of Our Lady of Victory

Infant Jesus of Prague

The Child Jesus is dressed by religious sisters in various royal robes, whose color changes according to the season of the church year.  The white alb and royal apparel remind us of the defenselessness of the Divine Child and at the same time of Jesus' royal title and his divine almighty power.  The ancient tradition of dressing the grace-giving statue of the Infant Jesus is intended to bring Jesus closer to the faithful as a real human being.  It helps us to experience the closeness of Jesus and to express our love and reverence.  It is not a case of idolatry, for the statue is not alive and it serves only as a reminder and a means of enabling a spiritual encounter with the living Christ.

The Infant Jesus of Prague has been dressed in different clothes from time immemorial, and people know him best in his royal robes.  Most of his outfits are gifts of thanksgiving.  The wardrobe numbers around a hundred costumes, some of which are incomplete or unusable.  Some of the costumes can be seen in the museum, which the public can visit free of charge.  The task of changing the Infant Jesus' robes is entrusted to the Carmelite Sisters of the Child Jesus, who help the Discalced Carmelite Fathers to look after this place of pilgrimage.

The robes of the Infant Jesus of Prague are changed so that the color corresponds to the liturgical season, which is governed by the church calendar.  Four basic colors are normally used:

White - festive color of purity and holiness - for feast days and the Easter and Christmas periods.
Red - color of blood and fire, royal color - for Holy Week, Pentecost time and feasts of the Holy Cross.
Violet - solemn color symbolizing repentance - for the Lenten and Advent seasons.
Green - color of life and hope - for ordinary time (color used most often)

On the feast of his coronation, the Infant Jesus is usually dressed in royal robes with an emine mantle.  On special occasions other colors are used:

Rose - color of subdued joy - may be used on the third Sunday of Advent and the fourth Sunday of Lent.
Gold - festive color - may replace other colors.
Blue - sometimes used as a festive color, especially for feasts of Our Lady.

Prayer of the Holy Father Benedict XVI to the Infant Jesus of Prague
O my Lord Jesus, 
we gaze on you as a baby
and believe that you are the Son of God,
who became man
in the womb of the Virgin Mary,
through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Just as at Bethlehem,
we too, with Mary, Joseph,
the angels and the shepherds,
adore you and acknowledge you
as our only Savior.

You became poor
to enrich us with your poverty.
Grant that we may never forget the poor
and all those who suffer.

Protect our families,
bless all the children of the world,
and grant that the love you brought us
may always reign amongst us
and lead us to a happier life.

Grant, O Jesus, that all
may recognize the truth of your birth,
so that they may know
that you came to bring
to the whole human family
light, joy and peace.

You who live and reign
with God the Father
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.