Spending any part of the Christmas season abroad can be stressful. Your family and friends are far away, the local traditions are different, and it is easy to feel a sense of loneliness rather than belonging. However, if you give it a try, Christmas spent abroad can also be an unforgettable experience. The Czech Republic and especially Brno are definitely the right place to choose.
Christmas markets are organized in every Czech city and quite possibly in your country as well, but the ones in Brno are really phenomenal. While the crowded markets at the Staroměstské náměstí in Prague are a tourist attraction more than anything else, the squares in Brno belong to the locals. Groups of friends hang out and drink Turbomošt or Svoboďáček – Christmas drinks specific to Brno – that quickly relieve the stress caused by all the presents that still need to be bought.
“I have not yet had the opportunity to spend Christmas proper in Brno, but I love the local Christmas markets. I have tried the traditional punch as well as the baked Christmas sweets, which were absolutely delicious,” says Gega Todua, a Georgian who teaches microeconomics at the MU Faculty of Economics. Alisa Aliu, an Erasmus student from Albania, also finds the Christmas atmosphere in Brno charming. As this 20-year-old student says, “You can see that the Czechs really enjoy their Christmas in style. I adore the local markets and I am also looking forward to spending Christmas here.”
Besides various goodies and drinks, the Christmas markets also offer free concerts – sometimes featuring Czech stars such as Dan Bárta or Lenka Dusilová – and movies. A ride in a Christmas tram is also highly recommended, as is trying to snatch a special Christmas marble from the “astronomical clock” at Náměstí Svobody. For those who wish to explore Brno during the festive season in greater depth, the city offers guided tours in English every Saturday from 3 p.m.
When Christmas finally arrives, however, the lively city turns into a peaceful oasis. A lot of the city’s liveliness is due to the over 80,000 students, who leave to spend Christmas with their families. “I enjoy my time in Brno during the Christmas season, but I spend Christmas proper in a close family circle at home in southern Bohemia,” says Pavel Čech, a student of the Faculty of Law. According to Veronika Kovářová, a student of Culture Management and Media Studies at MU, “Even though Brno really gets into a festive mood before Christmas, I only start feeling the true holiday spirit once I get home.”
Carp sold in the streets
In the Czech Republic, Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve, 24 December. The whole day is spent in preparations for the festive evening. Adults cook, decorate the Christmas tree and wrap (and some of the more desperate ones also buy) Christmas presents, while children watch fairy tale movies that always air at Christmas. When all of the preparations are complete, many people go for a walk, to Christmas markets, or to visit friends and extended family.
The whole family then gather at the holiday dinner table around 5 p.m. The Christmas Eve menu is similar in every household: fish soup, fried carp, and potato salad. Before Christmas, live carp is sold out of big barrels on every street corner. “This was the most surprising aspect of Christmas for me. I still enjoy observing the barrels and the sellers,” says Andrew L. Roberts, a US political scientist and lecturer at the Faculty of Social Studies who has been living in the Czech Republic on and off for 23 years. He adds, “Unfortunately, I never had one swimming in my bathtub,” referring to the Czech tradition of keeping the live carp at home in the bathtub before it is killed.
The making of potato salad may also stir up emotions. In many families, there are annual pre-Christmas arguments over whether you should add pickled cucumbers or carrots to the salad. This may even lead to two different versions of potato salad on the Christmas dinner table.
And right after dinner, it is time for the presents brought by Baby Jesus. Veronika Kovářová, a student, describes the Christmas routine in her family, which is similar in all homes with small children: “My Mum takes my little brothers and the dog for a walk in the afternoon, while me and my Dad pile the presents under the Christmas tree. During dinner, the living room is closed and nobody can go in, but afterwards the Christmas tree lights up automatically and a bell rings, which means that Baby Jesus has already brought the presents.” Children usually believe in Baby Jesus until they start attending school, where they sooner or later learn the harsh truth from their classmates. If the children want Baby Jesus to bring them what they want, they have to write him a letter before Christmas and put it behind the window.
When all the presents have been given, it is time to watch fairy tale movies on TV. Older teenagers sometimes go out with their friends and the midnight mass, which includes carol singing, is very popular even among non-believers. The next two days of the holidays are spent visiting relatives; some families leave for a holiday extending to New Year’s Day.
Even thought the Czech Republic is largely atheist, Christmas is celebrated by everybody. The holidays focus on festive celebrations with family and friends rather than on the nativity of Jesus.
Christmas Eve Erasmus Party
While Czech students enjoy spending time with their families, for the international ones home is often too far away to return just for Christmas holidays and so some of them spend their Christmas in Brno. “This is going to be my first Christmas in the Czech Republic and I’m very much looking forward to it,” says Alisa, the Albanian student. “I will spend it together with other Erasmus students: we will prepare a dinner, listen to some music, and then go to a party.” When she is at home in Albania, she spends Christmas Eve with her family at the dinner table.
Christina Molyviati, a Greek student at the Faculty of Arts, says she is probably going to spend her Christmas in Prague: “I definitely want to spend the holidays with my friends. In Greece, we go to church on Christmas Day (25 December), and then we have a big family breakfast and give presents to each other. At night, we go out with our friends.”
Those who would like to experience a typical Czech Christmas and do not feel comfortable about participating in their Czech friends’ family Christmas have the opportunity in Brno restaurants. Some of them remain open on Christmas Eve and offer a traditional or innovative Christmas Eve menu, including as takeaway.