Baby Jesus and the Brandy: A Czech Christmas Tale Part 2

So as previously discussed, Christmas is not exactly a standardized holiday. Between different nations and/or cultures, the day may be different, the events may proceed differently, the movies are different, et cetera et cetera. There is one rather large part I’ve left out. Food. As opposed to the expected US Thanksgiving, Christmas has no set standard of foods. Some people will prepare turkey (a feverish roll-over from Thanksgiving, I’m sure), but there’s also ham, roast beef, pork roasts, lamb, among others. There’s no one “correct” side dish either, compared to the expected cornucopia surrounding the Thanksgiving turkey.

To the same extent, there is little agreement on desserts, either. Gingerbread men, and maybe decorated sugar cookies? The rest is family tradition or history. Perhaps this has something to do with America’s multi-ethnic and multicultural history, but there isn’t any definitive “American Christmas meal” that I’ve ever known of. The Czechs, however, do have such a thing.

With Vánoce (again, the Czech equivalent of Christmas, please see above link for more clarity and background), their meal of choice is kapr, or, carp. A big ol’ fish.

As a side note, it’s fascinating, really, as opposed to the very typical American standard of having your fish pretty well-prepared and pre-prepped for you in the supermarkets, most European markets have the whole proper fish just chilling out by the deli, and the fishmonger/fish cutter behind the counter can, if you so choose, fillet the fish for you. With the carp, the history of it goes one step further by having you buy the living fish.

“But where,” I hear no one ask, “do they keep the fish, oh brave and learned scribe?” Well, non-existent inquisitor, you may make the humourous observation of using the tub. And you would be correct. Many families keep the carp in their tubs for a day or two before Vánoce before killing and preparing it for dinner. I’ve been told that it helps give time for the fish to “cleanse” itself before preparation, and I have no reason to doubt that.

“But where,” they doggedly continue, “do they bathe when the fish has taken residence in their tub?” Well, most obviously don’t bathe with the fish. It is merely transferred to a bucket or some other smaller vessel for a small time, and dropped back in afterwards. Or due to the traditionally family-oriented nature of the holiday, one would just bathe at a relative’s place. Or you have multiple bathrooms. There’s always some solution.

Not all families now are as comfortable personally killing the carp, so some families now will have someone prepare their fish for them, or they’ll buy the recently-prepared fish from a market. From what I’ve seen though, it still seems to be a day or two before Vánoce, so it’s a level of anxiety that most just come to expect and fear for every holiday season. If you remember that presents come after dinner, the exactness of preparation needed seems far more than the “average” Christmas panic.

So there’s the carp. The second traditional dish for Vánoce? Potato salad. Like any other dish, there are specific styles and methods passed down through generations, but I have been told that it must be homemade.

There are also cookies. Many cookies. I first had Czech Vánoce cookies when I was here last year for New Years (well, technically two years ago, now – 2013 into 2014). There are invariably many cookies, and invariably many types of cookies. Sugar cookies, almond-y cookies, chocolate biscuit things, different types of cream-puff-type-things, butter cookies, tea cookies with jam, and the list goes on.

Perhaps some will be wondering about the “brandy” bit of the title. Well, that’s interesting. I’ve spoken about slivovice before in a past post. I won’t bother having anyone re-read that far back, so to re-explain, it’s an unaged plum brandy, and basically the most traditional liquor here in the Czech Republic, and I do believe also in Slovakia (as well as other countries, but I can’t personally speak for them). However, the name is sort of flexible, in a way. “Plum” in Czech is “slíva or švestka.” Slíva? Slivovice? See the connection? As it turns out, any fruit capable of being distilled can be its own “-vice,” so to speak; all part of the same term of distilled beverages called “pálenka.” So jablkovice: jablko= apple; hruškovice (like hrushkovitse): hruška= pear; etc etc etc. A lovely, logical little system, it is.

The father of the household had a few local makes of brandy on-hand, and had an inquisitive foreigner in his midst, so of course trying some came as a natural result of hospitality. Sometimes in the spirit of the holidays, you partake in some spirits in spirit of the holidays. Sometimes slightly earlier than you would normally expect. But a celebration is a celebration, and one should never run the risk of offending the hospitality of one’s hosts. So bright and early-ish on Vánoce, a friend of the aforementioned father dropped by, and it called for a shot of a blackberry brandy, followed quickly by a second shot, this time of hruškovice. The two shots are a normal tradition, as well (one I also talked about many moons ago), where the first shot is “for the first foot out of bed,” and the second is “to take the first step in starting the day.” When these brandies can be something from 40-70% alcohol, I find at times it has the opposite effect for me, where each shot symbolizes a step towards a nap. But hey, holidays, right?

Digressing back to food, after dinner the heaping cookies were placed back onto the table, and there was a basket of apples. A nice, healthy after-dinner treat, but they also served as another Vánoce tradition. You cut your apple horizontally, and if the seeds form a star pattern, it promises good luck. If it’s a cross, it promises an awful, possibly death-filled year.

It’s always a treat to me to have the ability (or luck) to see places from the local perspective, one that many others may not have the same opportunities to see. Prague (and the Czech Republic as a whole) has an impressive and gorgeous cultural/historical legacy that basically speaks for itself. However, as it always seems to be the case, getting the chance to peer underneath the public image that every city tries to maintain and see how the real people live is the highlight of any journey worth having. Even if it involves dealing with supernatural infants bearing gifts.

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