If you are travelling to Prague for the festive season, you might be wondering what is the traditional Christmas meal that Czech people eat at home.
Since my English friends also often ask me what’s is the traditional Czech Christmas dinner and what we eat on Christmas Eve I thought I’d share with you what are the traditional Christmas dishes that Czech families enjoy during the holiday season and some of the traditions that are associated with the Christmas Eve dinner.
Christmas Fish Soup
The first course of Christmas dinner is traditionally a fish soup. Since the main course is traditionally fried carp, whatever is not used for the main course is boiled and made into a soup. The soup is usually made with the fish head or leftover fish, fish eggs and various root vegetables.
The soup is usually quite runny, although some people use flour or cornflour or cream to thicken the soup a little. The soup is then served with homemade croutons made from bread or rolls fried in butter and added to the soup right at the end. You might also see fresh parsley as a garnish on top. The fish soup is traditionally served on its own – i.e. there are no bread or rolls served with the soup.
The fish soup was always my favourite part of Christmas Dinner because it was the only course that was properly hot and since the fish consomme was strained, there were no fish bones to worry about.
The main Christmas Dinner Course – Fried carp & potato salad
The main course is fried carp with a potato salad. The carp fillets are coated in flour, dipped in egg, covered in bread crumbs, fried and served hot. The potato salad is made of boiled and diced potatoes, canned peas, pickled cucumbers or canned carrots, boiled eggs, mustard or mayonnaise. The salad is served cold, practically straight from the fridge.
Every family will have a slightly different recipe for the potato salad with some adding diced onions, salami or grated apples or other vegetables.
Alternatives to the fried carp course
There are non-official alternatives to the fish course, which have become more and more popular in the last 25 years.
Pork or chicken schnitzel with boiled potatoes (or mashed potatoes or chips) and pickled cucumbers is a Czech favourite dinner all year round, so it’s not a surprise to see that some families choose to have it instead of the fried carp on Christmas Eve. You can try this dish any time in one of the many Prague Czech canteen style restaurants, which usually serve it with boiled potatoes.
Roasted duck, red cabbage and dumplings or boiled potatoes is another alternative, which is actually more traditional than the fried carp. Roasted duck was the Christmas dinner dish in the more affluent households during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century.
Wine sausages have a slightly tangy flavour and are traditionally made from pork or sometimes also veal meat. The sausages are not thermally processed, so they must be consumed as soon as possible. The sausages are thin when rolled into a spiral they look a little bit like a sun. Because of that the wine sausages are a traditional Christmas dish as a celebration of the winter solstice which is on 21st December.
Christmas dinner pudding (dessert)
Our family never really had an official ‘pudding’ or ‘afters’ at the end of Christmas Dinner. Most families, as far as I know, would have a different variety of traditional Czech Christmas cookies (vánoční cukroví) or Christmas bread (vánočka). The Vanocka is a sweet bread dough similar to brioche and uses exactly the same recipe and ingredients as my Easter Mazanec Recipe, so if you like, you can make it at home too.
More recently and because we have started to take on customs of other countries, people are now serving more traditional types of suitable dinner puddings, such as warm apple strudel with whipped heavy cream or vanilla ice-cream.
The Czech Christmas tradition of fasting
If you want to be super authentic or can’t be bothered with cooking until dinner on Christmas Eve, you can always follow the Czech Christmas traditional custom of fasting. All you have to do is not eat all day on the 24 December until the first star appears in the sky.
This is why Christmas Dinner is served with the first stars and when it starts to get darker. If you manage to do this, you’ll see a Golden Piglet in the evening, which will bring you luck and money for the next year! Simple right?
The Czech Christmas Eve Dinner Tradition
In the Czech Republic, Christmas Eve is considered the most important day of Christmas and is known as “Štědrý večer” which translated into English means something like ‘Generous Evening’ – as it is the evening that we share gifts with our family and loved ones. The main food of the day is dinner, which is served a lot earlier than usual – between 4 to 6 pm.
After finishing the dinner, everyone moved over to the Christmas tree with the presents underneath. In Czech Republic, we have the tradition of a Baby Jesus, known as “Ježíšek,” who brings the gifts and puts them under the Christmas Tree.
We usually take turns in unwrapping the gifts and then watching a Christmas fairy tale on TV and eating ‘Vanocka’ – Czech version of a Stollen or Vanocni Cukrovi – Christmas cookies and sweets.
The next two days – the official Christmas Day and then the St.Stephen’s Day (Second Christmas Day) are not as significant as Christmas Eve and are simply spent with family. The food on these two days varies, but it’s not specific.
People usually finish off whatever they bought for Christmas Eve and have more Christmas Sweets, gingerbreads and Christmas Stollen.
How did the carp get onto the Czech Christmas dinner plate?
Whilst the modern fried carp and potato salad is the invention of 1960s Czech communist propaganda that wanted to have something super quick to make by the families that still had to work on Christmas Eve, they were actually and very loosely following an old tradition.
Fish was part of the Christmas Eve table in the past, as it symbolized fertility, as well as Christianity and Christ, and were suitable for the time of Advent fasting. At the time fish wasn’t considered to be a ‘meat’!
During the heyday of fish farming in the Czech Republic in the 15th and 16th centuries, even poor families could afford them. But with the fish farming decline at the end of the 17th century, the fish only appeared on the tables of wealthier families.
Fast forward to today and when you visit Prague about a week before Christmas, you will be able to see large water tanks full of fresh carps ready to be sold. Traditionally you would buy the carp alive, take it home and leave it in the water in your bath tub until the Christmas Eve. I really liked this part of the tradition, because when we were growing up not only that we had a ‘pet’ for few days, but we also didn’t have to have a bath! Win, win!
The traditional Czech dinners from the past
While today, most families indulge in Christmas Eve with fish soup followed by fried carp with potato salad, in the past, people’s tables featured mushroom ‘kuba’ or dried fruit ‘muzika’.
Muzika – fruit porridge
Muzika has a consistency of porridge, but it’s made just from fruit. It’s usually prepared from dried pears, apples and plums, which are soaked in water, boiled with cloves, cinnamon, and lemon, sweetened and topped with grated gingerbread. Some recipes also add lemon juice, nuts, raisins, almonds or rum. This type of fruit porridge is usually eaten on Christmas Eve as part of the festive dinner in the evening.
Kuba – Mushroom dish
Kuba is a traditional Christmas dish from the Czech country villages, which has been popular in various regions for hundreds of years. The recipe varies from region to region, but it’s basically cooked groats and stewed mushrooms mixed with onions, garlic, herbs and lard and baked together.
This blog post was originally written on 28 November 2023 and last updated on 28 November 2023