The live carp in a bathtub
By Emma Palova
Lowell, MI – Among the age-old Czech Christmas traditions that I consider as the most bizarre and “fishy” was the purchase of a live carp on Christmas Eve or the day before for Christmas Eve dinner at the Czech open-air holiday markets.
The carp were transported in barrels with fresh water from the carp ponds in Southern Bohemia such as Trebon. The carp ponds were started in medieval times in the Rozmberk area. Annually in the autumn, the ponds are drained and the carp are netted and kept in large vats before they hit the holiday markets on city squares.
We had to stand in lines for fresh carp at the open markets and the no. 1 tip was not to forget your crochet net bag so the carp could breathe in it before you got the poor fish home, that had already been fighting for oxygen with hundreds of carp in the barrels and vats since November.
If you were lucky to get the carp home live, you had to release it into the bathtub. The next day the men in the household butchered it and it was served for Christmas Eve dinner. Sometimes the head was used for fish soup. We have always used the mushroom soup alternative.
The next hurdle you had to overcome was not to get a bone stuck in your throat. The fried carp always had plenty of bones, fat, and smelled of mud from the ponds, if it was big enough. Yet, it was the fish of choice for the festive dinner accompanied by potato salad, and soup.
If you had something different like fish fillets or fried schnitzel, it was looked down upon.
Fishy tradition modified
This fishy tradition I have modified accordingly since there is no live carp sold on American open holiday markets. At least not that I know of. For years I bought fish at the local grocer’s fish counter, until 2020, the year of Covid.
As I frequented farmer’s markets in 2020 due to Covid restrictions, I discovered fishmonger Dan Sodini from Middleville. He brings fresh and frozen fish from the cold waters of Lake Huron to the markets in West Michigan. Last year, he started the annual winter “fish drop” and I rejoiced.
I knew the Great Lakes Fish annual fish drop was as close as I could get to the Czech live carp tradition. During the first winter fish drop on Jan. 16th at the Ada market, I bought our Christmas fish: lake trout, whitefish, and salmon. And yes, I had to stand in a line. Thank you, Dan, for keeping our “fishy” tradition alive.
Some Czech families feeling sorry for the carp let it loose the next day, which was not recommended.
Back to Christmas Eve; those who fasted all day before dinner got to see the golden pig, signifying prosperity. Also if you put a scale from the carp under your plate or in your wallet, you will enjoy prosperity.
Creative Czechs have been inspired by the live carp tradition for generations; it has made its way into movies, folk tales, legends, poems, new blog posts, and radio talk.
If you see a star made from apple seeds by cutting an apple in half, the whole family will enjoy health for the entire year or there will be a birth in the family. On the other hand, if you see a cross from the apple seeds or the center is rotted, there will be a death in the family.
Single girls threw a shoe behind them at the doorstep, if the tip pointed to the door, the girl would get married next year. If it pointed inward, the girl would stay single for at least the next year.
Sometimes, we each floated a nut shell with a candle resembling little sailboats in a pot; the sailboats that traveled away from the edge, meant travel for their owners, the ones that stayed by the edge, meant staying home.
A major difference between Czech and American Christmas is that gifts are found underneath the tree right after dinner. “Jezisek” brings them while we eat.
This was preceded by a long period of hiding gifts, and hunting for them; finding gifts in unusual places and boxes marked with something else than the content. I picked up this tradition from my dad, Vaclav Konecny. Once in Africa, he put my doll in a box from a train. I remember the tears of disappointment, that didn’t last too long.
Mom Ella found her golden bracelets hanging like ornaments on the Christmas tree. Thanks, dad for this fun tradition.
Then, we play traditional Czech carols on the piano and the trumpet. We usually go for the Christmas mass the next day on Dec. 25th. Now, almost exclusively to St. Pat’s in Parnell.
In the Czech Republic, the day after Christmas Day was known as the Feast of St. Stephen, which we all celebrated by visiting with family and going to church.
Since we have been sharing our favorite Christmas traditions on my “For the Love of Books Podcast,” I would be remiss if I didn’t share my own.
Here we go:
Favorite holiday tradition
After a long day of working in the kitchen, my favorite moment was finally sitting down at the festive dinner table, lighting the candles, and seeing all the hungry faces ready to eat after the prayer led by the head of the family.
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