For such a staunchly atheist country, the Czech Republic has quite a number of religious traditions, especially surrounding Easter and Christmas. The Advent season brings many celebrations relating to Catholic saints.
Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas. This year, the date is December 3. The day before the beginning of Advent, the customary massive Christmas tree will be illuminated on Prague’s Old Town Square, and the season will be in full swing.
The tree will be surrounded by one of the city’s largest Christmas markets, featuring the usual items – mulled wine, Christmas decorations, gingerbread, handmade gifts, body care products, toys, roasted chestnuts, and porcelain, among other things.
The Old Town Square Market will start on December 2, the day before Advent begins, as will the market on Wenceslas Square. All of the Christmas markets will be open until January 6. As almost everyone knows by now, several smaller markets are already in operation.
One of the traditions of Advent takes place on November 30, the Feast of St. Andrew. On this day, unmarried women would cast hot lead (yes, really) and watch to see what shape the lead would take as it cooled. This shape should reveal her future husband.
On December 4, the day before St. Nicholas’ Day (see here for the article about this holiday), women celebrated St. Barbara’s Day. They would take a twig off a cherry tree and keep it in water until Christmas.
If the twig blossomed, the woman would marry within the year. These twigs were known as “barborky”. In times past, barefoot young women clad in white dresses would also be called barborky, giving sweets and fruit to good children, while the naughty ones got a quick swat.
December 7 is the Feast of St. Ambrose. In Kutná Hora, a parade for St. Barbara and St. Ambrose is held each year. The man playing the part of St. Ambrose rides a black horse and wields a broom. Children lining the parade route will shout at the saint, whereupon he will chase them.
During the chase, Ambrose “accidentally” spills candy on the ground. If he catches any of the children picking up candy, he will give that child a little swat with the broom.
On December 13, it is St. Lucia’s turn. Like her fellow saint, Barbara, Lucia is said to have died a particularly ugly death, as befits a martyr. (Ambrose, on the other hand, seems to have died peacefully.) According to the Julian calendar, December 13 falls on the solstice; the saying arose that “Lucia sips the night away, but the day does not grow longer.”
Women were forbidden to work on this day, and it was the custom for “Lucias” dressed in white coats and wearing masks to check at each house to make sure no work was being done. They would pound on the door and say, “I’m coming, coming to sip the night away.”