Vánočka, houska, štědrovka…these are just some of the names of the famous Czech Christmas pastry. Read on if you want to learn more about its history and all the names given to it over the centuries.
What is Vánočka
Vánočka is sweet Christmas pastry made in the Czech Republic especially at Christmas (but nowadays sold in stores all year long). It is rich in butter and eggs and has raising (if you like them) and almonds. We have a whole article with recipe, so check out Vánočka, the amazing Christmas pastry. It’s form is a braid made from several strands.
Vánočka and Symbolism
Vánočka and its predecessors calta and pletenec (both plain white breads) symbolized the giving at Christmas. In 1426, Jan z Holešova, a monch from the Břevnov monastery described the giving ritual in his work Largissimus vesper, seu Colledae historia. At that time the pastry was just the aforementioned white bread but Vánočka adopted the same symbolism. It was given to the household staff, the family members, the pilgrims and the poor who came by and even to the cattle.
And why giving, you ask? The braided white bread and later Vánočka reminded people of the Baby Jesus wrapped in the swaddle blanket. One of the things brought to the Baby Jesus and laid next to the manger was bread. And just like the Magi and common people shared what was theirs with the Baby Jesus, so the Christians shared their Christmas bread with everyone else.
Vánočka was (and still is) most traditionally braided from 9 strands. The 4 bottom strands symbolize the earth, the Sun, the water and the air. The middle three strands symbolize the connection between the reason, the feelings and the will. The the upper two strands are a symbol wisdom and love.
History of Vánočka
Vánočka was also a common gift given to the carolers on their Three Kings caroling and we actually know that an abbess from the 14th century Prague ordered that each caroler group be given a Vánočka. Therefore, it’s safe to say that it has existed at least from the 14th century, although it was nowhere near finding its way to the Christmas table in the common households.
At the time when barter was common, Vánočka used to be also a mean of payment. In the 17th century the pastry was already established as an esteemed Christmas gift given often by the town counsels at Christmas as a recognition to those who served the town. Zikmund Winter described in 1612 in his feuilleton Štědrý večer v radnici staroměstské (Christmas Eve in the Old Town Hall) how bakers bring their Vánočkas to the town hall and negotiate the price with the coucillors and the pastry would be later given to “people from last year’s list that made it evident that those were people with the status ranging from that of the Prague archbishop through the lowest ones without whom the town couldn’t exist”.
In fact, Vánočka became such a popular gift that in 1787, as reported in the memoires of Jan Jeník z Bratřic, whole Bohemia forbade the bakers to give pastry as a Christmas present to those customers who buy their products regularly because of the fights it caused between the bakers – they competed with their gifts trying to steal each other customers. In 1794, Joseph II. issued an order to the pharmacists and in 1795 extended it to other professions including the bakers – all presents to the clerks, policemen and all city officials were forbidden as they were seen as a mean of corruption. This change ended the famous Vánočka processions for the highest burgrave.
In the Austrian-Hungarian Empire Vánočka was a must among the gifts for the poor. Children in the poorhouses were given clothes, Vánočka, nuts and apples at Christmas.
The Newspaper Národní listy reported the chaos at the Town Hall in 1933 mentioning that it was the household staff of wealthy citizens bringing the pastry. At that time Vánočka had been already established as a part of the Christmas table in most households.
WW I and First Czechoslovak Republic
The First World War had a negative impact on every aspect of everyday lives and the bakers were no exception. As the rationing system was introduced and freelancer baking prohibited, the Vánočka making traditions were limited. In 1916 their baking was prohibited completely.
The rationing system was still in force at the beginning of the First Republic, until the summer of 1921, however, this was the year when ordering Vánočka in bakeries was possible again. Very quickly a mass production of this Christmas bread started. To make the production cheaper producers started using alternatives such as vegetable fat instead of butter.
With the Second World War the limitations returned. At first, it wasn’t the prohibitions but simply the lack of ingredients. Magazines published recipes for Vánočka without eggs, Vánočka made from potatoes, with artificial honey and egg substitutes and pure alcohol instead of yeast. Later the prohibition of freelance baking was re-introduced and the rationing system gave people allowance to certain amount of pastry for a certain period of time.
The war recipes were used until the summer of 1953 because the rationing system persisted even 8 years after the end of the WW II.
Lack of certain things, including cooking ingredients, was typical for the whole era of socialism. Raisins and almonds were imported from non-socialist countries, making them sometimes difficult to get. It was, however, this period during which Vánočka stopped being a purely Christmas item and became commonly accessible all year long in the stores.
From the 1990s there’s a been a boom of everything in Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. People have had sufficient amounts of everything and Vánočka became a usual thing to eat for breakfast. Industries blossomed and overproduced, often looking for cheap alternatives to traditional ingredients.
However, it seems that households have not forgotten the traditional recipes and luckily, the homemade Vánočkas are mostly still excellent.
Superstitions and Rituals
As was already mentioned, Vánočka was often given to the cattle. It was believed that it would make the cattle healthy. To assure a fruitful field and good crops, corners of Vánočka were buried in the corners of the field. Housewives used to smear a little dough on each tree in their garden because they believed it would make the trees more fruitful and they baked a coin in each piece of Vánočka that the family would share – whoever found the coin in their piece would have enough money the next year.
The girl from the household who managed to collect the most corners of the Christmas pastry Vánočka would get married next year. It wasn’t so easy though because cutting corners wasn’t allowed, you had to wait until the whole Vánočka was eaten.
Vánočka, Houska, Štědrovka…or?
Do you wonder what the correct name of this Czech Christmas delicacy is? Is it Vánočka, used in this article, Houska, often mentioned by third, fourth… generation Czechs born abroad or is the correct denomination something else? Let me tell you right away that none of the aforementioned and those that are going to be mentioned is incorrect. However, there are some BUTs.
To start with a formal source, the Czech Language Atlas of the Czech Language Institute mentions Vánočka as the superior denomination to the following: houska, husce, štědrovka, štědrovnice, štědrák, calta, celta, pletenka, pleténka, pleteňice, pletenec, žemle, vandrovňice, štrycle, štricle, štrice, štrucla, štruzla, strucla and trucle. That is quite a lot! Let’s take a look at those historically most used.
And before we get to more info, here is a map of the Czech Republic. The Czech Language Institute did an extensive research of the use of the aforementioned words. The result is that the word Vánočka is used in the whole country, in some regions concurrently with other names.
If you refer to the pastry nowadays and you want to be generally understood, especially by the locals, you should use the name Vánočka. That is something everybody in the Czech Republic knows. The other names might be confusing to some.
Although this denomination is just as old as the other ones (we have written mentions of it from the 14th century), Vánočka with the letter “V” has been in use only since 1849. Before that, it was written Wánočka. The change was introduced by the Czech revivalist movement.
According to the Czech Language Atlas, the word Vánočka is used in the whole of Czech Republic, in some regions (mostly Bohemia) concurrently with other names.
Vánočka is derived from the Czech word for Christmas – Vánoce. Historically, the alternative name was also Vánočnice which isn’t in use anymore.
The name Houska was used in Bohemia (the western part of the country) commonly until aprox. the 19th century. We know that this denomination was used in Prague already in the 14th century although sometimes as a general name for pastry and it had to be specified which type of Houska one meant. For example, a Prague abbess ordered that the carolers should be given „po groši, muškátowém oříšku, hausce wánočce, kopě ořechů, 16 jablkách, 16 hruškách, dohromady dwě pinty wína a za šest haléřů piwa“ (one groschen, a nutmeg, a Vánočka bread (literally called hauska wánočka), sixty walnuts, 16 apples, 16 pears, two pints of wine together and six heller worth of beer).
Alternative names would be Húsce, Húsce štrajchowané (14th and 15th century). Already in 1833, Václav Hanka included Húska in his Latin-Czech Dictionary of Unknown Words.
According to the Czech Language Atlas the name Houska is still in use in some Bohemian regions together with the word Vánočka.
It’s probably the most confusing name of all because nowadays and generally, Houska is white bread that is also braided but it’s never sweet. It’s savory, often sprinkled with salt or poppy seeds. In conclusion, referring to Vánočka as Houska isn’t incorrect, however, you should use it only in specific regions or contexts, if you want to be understood. For example, are you referring to your great-great-grandma’s recipe and to what she called it at that time? Go for it and call it Houska! Are you in some specific Bohemian region where the word Houska is still in use? Use it, of course! Do you want to tell your friends from different backgrounds what you baked at Christmas or ask for the pastry in a shop in the Czech Republic? Better use the word Vánočka.
This name is derived from the German word Stollen and has been quite successfully eradicated from the Czech language in the 19th century by the revivalists. However, you could still hear this word especially at the borders with Germany. Nowadays, Štola mostly refers to the German variation of this pastry which tends to be more dry, sometimes not braided and with several kinds of dried and candied fruit.
The names Štědrovka and Štědrovnice were used at the same time like Vánočka and Húska and nowadays they are somewhere between extinct and extremely sporadically used in the western part of the country as well as in the region around the town Třebíč.
There is one famous text referring to Vánočka as Štědrovnice that most Czechs still have in mind, it’s the poem Štědrý den from the horror poetry collection Kytice by Karel Jaromír Erben:
A štědrovka to the master,
And as for the meaning of the word Štědrovka or Štědrovnice, it refers to the quality we are all supposed to show at Christmas – generosity or štědrost in Czech. The Czech Language Atlas mentions the reference to Štědrý den (December 24) which means “Generous Day”. It is the most poetic denomination of all and quite fitting as Štědrovka was shared with the whole family and given not only to the household staff but also to complete strangers, pilgrims and the poor.
Calta is probably the oldest of the names together with Pletenec (braided bread) and it originally referred to white bread. According to the Czech Language Atlas it is still in use in South Bohemia and in the Domažlice region concurrently with the word Vánočka.
This denomination refers to the form of Vánočka. It’s derived from the word plést – to braid. So Pletenice means “braided bread”. The Czech Language Atlas mentions a small area around Litomyšl where this word is still being used.
Štrucle, Štrycle, Trucle
All three denominations are still used by the older generation. Štrucle in the northern part of Silesia, Štrycla in the Boskovice area and Trucle in the Zábřeh area.