Christmas in the Czech Republic is bathed in superstition and tradition. The list is long and, amazingly, many Czech families follow most, if not all, the rules. There are some good ones – like the table should be set for an even number of guests because an odd number brings bad luck or death. Or the first person to leave the table will die in the coming year so everyone has to get up at the same time. And my personal favorite, if you fast all day you will see zlaté prasátko, the golden piglet who brings good fortune, on the wall before dinner.
I want to see the golden piglet.
Even though the majority of Czech aren’t actually that religious, they place importance on those superstitions and traditions. Another tradition that seems to have stuck is carp. Traditionally, a Czech Christmas dinner consists of anywhere between 9 and 12 meatless (or supposed to be meatless) courses depending on the area of the country. Like other cultures that eat fish on Christmas, carp is symbolic of the Last Supper. Families that served 12 dishes were invoking Jesus’ 12 apostles.
The carp is not an old tradition. The Czech have never been huge fish eaters and feasting on Christmas carp only started in the 19th century. Before refrigeration, two things affected Christmas dinner: location and money. Anyone who ate carp on Christmas prior to the 19th century either lived in a fishing town or was quite wealthy.
Only the wealthy ate carp. Seems odd, doesn’t it?
Despite the limited access people had to fish, there are written accounts of carp farming way back to the 11th century. Monasteries kept fishponds to raise carp because it was a good food for Lent. The most significant cultivation happened in the 15th and 16th centuries when the number of carp ponds increased in South Bohemia. In fact, the art of creating and maintaining carp ponds was so admired that two men, Stepan Netolicky and his successor Jakub Krcin, became famous. Netolicky designed a pond system that incorporates several ponds and is still functional today.
Nowadays, carp at Christmas has become a staple and the Czech are known to have some of the best carp in Eastern Europe. Every meal begins with a fish soup, vánoční rybí polévka (that literally translates to “Christmas fish soup”), that’s made from the leftover bits after butchering a carp.
So, bits like the head and the tail and the….other stuff. Yum.
The Czech still aren’t big fish eaters but every year between the 24th and 26th of December, the Czech population ingests about 60,000 metric tons of carp. The Christmas carp counts for about 60% of the annual Czech demand for freshwater fish and 90% of freshwater fish sales during Christmas. Clearly, the carp harvest is kind of a big deal. In late October fishermen head out to carp ponds, most of which are man made, and begin the process of harvesting carp from the 7,600 ponds in Southern Bohemia.
How does one harvest carp, you ask? I’ll tell you.
First, you start draining the carp pond. That can take anywhere from a week to a month, depending on the size of the pond. The fish move to the deepest area of the pond where they are easily corralled by boats and nets. Fishermen drag huge numbers of live carp out of the lakes and ponds and sort them out by size. The fish are only retailed when they’re 3-4 years old and size is a good indicator of age. The smaller are returned to the pond to continue growing while the larger are sent to holding facilities. The fish hang out in tanks for a few weeks during which they purge themselves of their muddy taste. They are, after all, bottom feeders. The fishing lasts until the end of November.
This particular method of carp farming and fishing started in the 14th century and hasn’t changed much over the years.
Once the middle of December roles around, the streets of towns and cities are flooded with carp vendors. People choose their carp and the vendor fishes the Chosen One out of the huge tank. The carp can be killed and cleaned right there on the spot but most people choose to do the traditional thing – take them home and let them live in the bathtub until it’s time to kill them on Christmas Eve.
What’s the best way to kill a carp at home, you ask? I’ll tell you.
First, you hit it hard on the head with a heavy object (usually a mallet). Then you cut the gills and tail so the fish stops “flapping about.” Remove the scales and innards from the stomach with a knife, clean the carp thoroughly, and cut that baby up. The leftover bits are used to make vánoční rybí polévka. And don’t throw out the scales! Place them under dinner plates or the tablecloth at Christmas dinner to bring wealth to the home. People who carry a fish scale or two in their wallet year round will never run out of money. They will also have a stinky wallet.
Oh hey, side note about killing carp with mallets – Chuck Norris is bad at it. That’s right, I’m talking about Chuck Norris in a Christmas post about carp in an Eastern European country. Turns outs Christmas carp is such a well-known tradition in the Czech Republic that T-Mobile produced a commercial in which Chuck Norris, visiting a Czech home for Christmas, is invited to kill the carp. He, of course, refuses and then faints.
“Anyone can be tough on TV.” -The Guy in the Bad Sweater
If you’re wondering, “Why Chuck Norris?” the answer is because he’s mega-popular in the Czech Republic. His films were smuggled into the country as the Iron Curtain was about to collapse and they were some of the few bits of western entertainment the Czech could access. Once the 1990s rolled around, Walker Texas Ranger became one of the first major television hits from the US. Czech kids grew up with him. The managing director and co-owner of the commercial’s production company, Petr Keller, said
“Chuck Norris accepted this offer also for one reason, as a devout Christian he wanted to come to Prague to do Christmas ads because as he told us ‘In the U.S. it’s all just season holidays”
His agent decline to comment.
What were we talking about? Oh yeah, Christmas.
There are, of course, people who don’t agree with the carp markets. In 2004, animal campaigners in Prague called for the end of the public fishing market and the “slaughtering of millions of carp” at Christmas. Petr Schmied, campaigner with the Animals Freedom association, said
“It is paradoxical that Christmas, generally considered a holiday of love and peace, has unfolded as a sign of the massacre of animals.”
The argument is that the fish are being killed at 3 to 4 years old when in the wild they can live to be about 20 or 30 (actually, they can live to be 200, but who’s counting?). In addition, fishermen in public markets use knives to behead the fish turning the street into a brutal, open-air slaughterhouse.
“’And all that happens in front of the eyes of children. But that does not embarrass their parents,’ said Petr Schmied, who denounces the suffering inflicted on carp.”
Ya know, as opposed to the traditional killing method of smashing the fish over the head with a mallet and then gutting it while it’s still half-alive.
The protestors approached customers out doing their yearly carp fishing and tried to engage them in debates about the custom, saying the tradition is not so traditional since it only dates to the 19th century. Prior to that there was a more vegetarian tradition of eating kuba, a porridge made of hulled barley and dried mushrooms, and sour soup.
According to Schmied, they were having little success but meant to keep trying.
Aaaand back to Christmas dinner.
The vánoční rybí polévka (fish soup) also holds a special place in the hearts of the Czech. A way to use all the fish bits, it’s turned into a well-known part of Czech culture. Every year on Christmas Eve, the mayor of Prague turns out to serve Christmas fish soup to the entire city in the Old-Town Square. In 2011, 3,000 portions of soup were prepared following an old Czech recipe. Mayor Bohuslav Svoboda served 2,000 portions in the square while another 1,000 were served on Wenceslas Square and Kampa Island. The tradition began as a way to give the poor and beggars a gift on Christmas as well, but these days the soup group is about one half Praguers and the other half foreigners and tourists. There’s the occasional homeless person but they’ve all but stopped coming.
The traditional Czech Christmas dinner has changed a little over the last few hundred years. There aren’t necessarily 9 to 12 courses anymore, but it always includes fish soup, fried carp, and cold potato salad. Families have tried other main dishes for dinner, like salmon or poultry and pork, but the following Christmas they tend to go back to carp. Whether that’s out of preference or just feeling generally uncomfortable with changing tradition, we may never know.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
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