Only about a third of Czechs believe in God, the lowest rate in Europe, but their Christmas remains wrapped up in religious traditions.
“It may seem a little strange, but despite the low level of religiosity, Christmas is the most important holiday for Czechs. But they see it much more as a family and traditional holiday. The religious significance is hidden,” says David Václavík, associate professor at Masaryk University’s Department for the Study of Religions.
Children still write wish lists for Baby Jesus (or “Ježíšek”), who brings Christmas presents every year, rather than for a Westernized Santa Claus. The traditional carols and songs that are still sung are religiously charged.
On 5 December, most towns have people dressed as St Nicholas (Mikuláš), who, accompanied by an angel and a costumed devil, delivers either a gift or a punishment to children, depending on their behaviour that year.
“People are more open to listening to stories and biblical messages at Christmas time”
Life-size nativity scenes are not uncommon in the main squares, although, says Václavík, “ten or fifteen years ago… I had to explain the individual figures in the Christmas scene”. Newspapers are full of articles about Christmas traditions of yesteryear and interviews with priests.
Carp and potato salad, a traditional 19th-century Christmas feast, remains the main dish for families on December 24, when some households still play superstitious games to define their luck for the coming year.
Every December, a local survey asks the public about their religious beliefs. Last year, about 35% of respondents said they still believed in a God, down from 39% in 1995 but up slightly from 30% in 2012.
But the survey also finds that views on religion change around Christmas. While only a tenth of Czechs say they go to church regularly during the year, about two-fifths will attend a religious service at Christmas, according to the survey. And attending church is an important Christmas tradition for a third of families who don’t believe in God.
“I believe, and experience tells me, that people are more open to hearing Bible stories and messages at Christmas time. That they are more open to receiving spiritual things,” said Jan Dymáček of Maranatha, a local Christian NGO. “I can’t say whether people’s ideas about religion change only at Christmas time, but certainly people are more sensitive and more willing to talk about religious issues,” he added, according to Euronews.
Across Europe, an established Christmas tradition is complaining that the holiday has forgotten its “true meaning.” Newspapers in the Czech Republic invariably complain about consumerism, and religious groups sometimes bemoan the lack of understanding of the holiday’s Christian package, but analysts say claims that Christmas has lost its “meaning” are rarer than in other European countries.
In 2008, a group of students created the “Save Baby Jesus” (“Zachraňte Ježíška”) campaign to preserve what they claimed was the introduction of non-Czech traditions, though it attracted only about 10,000 signatories to a petition.