St. Nicholas and the Devil: Czech Christmas and Advent Customs
The most obvious difference between Christmas in the Czech Republic and in Anglo-Saxon countries is that the central occasion is the evening dinner on December 24. Carp, and not turkey, is consumed. Gifts are distributed after the meal rather than on Christmas Day.
While the custom of carp on Christmas Eve is common to a number of central European countries, during the advent period there are several customs that are more specifically Czech, or which are more keenly observed in the Czech lands than elsewhere.
St. Nicholas, not in his guise as Father Christmas but dressed as a bishop carrying a mitre, makes his first appearance on St. Nicholas Day, December 6, when he distributes gifts to children who have behaved well. He appears. He is accompanied by an angel and a devil. The tradition is that older children or adults don costumes representing the threesome and perform for younger children. St.Nicholas questions the children over their behaviour during the year and rewards those who have behaved well with a gift. The role of the devil, who has a long tail and chains, is to rant and rave as a warning to those children whose behaviour has not been so exemplary. Child psychologists warn that over enthusiastic performances by devils -- often fuelled by the tradition of rewarding the actors with shots of alcohol - can have a distressing effect on some children. It is becoming more common for parents to entrust the performance to people they know and to agree, at least roughly, on a scenario. An acquaintance of mine says she was so scared of the devil when she was young that she used to hide in some place in the house where she could not be reached. However, she does not think the antics of the devil in question played by a next door neighbour have caused any lasting trauma. Her mother in any case put a stop on the performances after a few years because of the devil's habit of not only thoroughly caking himself in coal for an authentic black look but also throwing some lumps of coal around the house to create a hell-like atmosphere.
The tradition of going from house to house remains more alive in the villages, especially in the Wallachian hills bordering Slovakia. Those in who are in Prague on December 6 can witness an enjoyable rendition of the tradition at the tradition at the Balbinova hospoda, with singer Eva Kocickova playing a very personable devil, but costumed threesomes can be seen in every town and village.
In the past, St. Nicholas was accompanied by a more numerous procession, including jesters, a chimney sweep, a brute dressed cloth trousers, a strait jacket, and a tall hat, with a sack over his shoulders, soldiers in the uniforms of hussars and dragoons, Turks, an old witch with a broom, and people dressed in animal masks, such as storks, bears, and goats. One figure best left in the annals of history is that of the Jew, whose role in the proceedings was to try to misappropriate some of the belongings from the house while his companions were performing there in order to try to sell them back to the owner when the party made its way on to the next house. The processions involving the bishop of St. Nicholas originated in the Middle Ages at church schools, with figure of St. Nicholas testing the pupils and distributing rewards to those who performed well, and evidently punishing those who did not. By the 13th century the tradition of processions and plays on St. Nicholas Day as a privilege of the pupils had evolved at the Breznov monastery school in Prague and at Olomouc Cathedral. The processions were even then sometimes somewhat rowdy and not to everyone's liking. In 1447, the townspeople of Prague forbade those taking part in the processions from riding on horseback. A book on Czech customs from 1579 states that pupils elected one of their number to be bishop St. Nicholas and two others as his chaplains. The three were carried by a throng of pupils ceremoniously to the church, and presided over a mass "from the bishops' seats on high."
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