Beginning of Christmas tree in Czech Lands
Christmas tree came to what’s now the Czech Republic from Germany at the turn of the 18th and 19th century. The two countries had a strong historical connection and especially the larger cities took over this custom easily. It comes as no surprise that the first Christmas tree ever mentioned in Czech lands was in Prague (it was in 1812). The countryside was more reluctant – the symbol of Christmas had been the Nativity scene (betlém) and the Christmas tree was viewed as something unpatriotic.
However, people commonly decorated their households with conifer branches and so the way to a whole tree wasn’t too long and in the second half of the 19th century a tree was a common part of the holidays. The family or servants decorated it on the morning of December 24 with pastry, gingerbread, small apples and dried fruit and candles, later also shiny papers, paper chains (popular until today) and crocheted or sewn decoration. The glass decorations that we know today came in the 20th century. The fruit wasn’t eaten from the tree as is the case with today’s sweet decoration. After dinner the family gathered around the tree and shook the fruit down. This tradition resulted in a beautiful Christmas rhyme that goes like this:
umyj se, ustroj se,
je Štědrý den.”
“Wake up, tree,
give us your fruit,
wash yourself, attire yourself,
it’s Christmas Day.”
The tree was placed wherever there was enough space for it in the household – in a mortar filled with sand, a wooden stand or even a beetroot that kept it fresh for longer. Smaller trees were commonly displayed also in windows or in the center of the table.
Currently, the Czech Christmas trees are the center of the household at the holidays. The glass decoration in form of balls, stars, pinecones and other are probably the most popular decoration of the Christmas tree. Together with chocolate figurines and pralines with filling that found their way onto the tree in the mid 20th century. However, some families prefer more rustic decoration made from hay or corn leaves. Very common are also silver or gold fringe chains, candles and colorful paper chains made by children. Candles are also present as the light has become the Christian symbol of the birth of Jesus. Unlike in many other countries the top of the tree is often decorated with the so called špica, a pointy glass piece.
Watch this episode of the Folklorika documentary dedicated to the manufacturing of traditional Czech Christmas tree decorations.
In some regions, such as Valachia, is it still very common to hang the tree upside down from the ceiling. As for when, some families follow the tradition and decorate the tree on the morning of December 24 or the night before. Others do it days or even weeks before. Curiously enough, in some families the Christmas tree has no decoration until it gets dark on December 24, then it’s the Baby Jesus who not only brings the presents but also decorates the tree. Cities, towns and villages light their trees on the largest and most important squares at the beginning of the Advent time. These trees are bought on a Christmas tree farm or selected from the forest trees that are planned for harvest. After Christmas, families as well as cities sometimes donate the trees to the animal reserves.
The Czech Christmas trees are supposed to be taken down on the Three Kings’ Day (January 6) but it’s not uncommon to see households who water their tree and keep it until Easter.
|“Vánoční stromeček zavoněl v pokoji,|
maminka u stolu jablíčko rozkrojí.
A když ho rozkrojí, uvidím hvězdičku,
co byla schovaná v červeném jablíčku.”
|“The Christmas tree gave its fragrance off in the room,|
Mommy will cut the apple on the table.
And when she cuts it she’ll see a star
Hidden in the red apple.”