Doing your research for your Christmas trip? wondering what to wear? what to do? what to expect? etc etc then let me help you out.
1) What's the weather like?
If you're really lucky there'll be fresh snow. If you're not as lucky it will be cold around 1 to 5 degrees C but sunny. If you're unlucky it'll be wet. Basically get a 5-day forecast and you'll see what it's going to be like. Bring layers of clothing that you can add and remove as you move in and out of shops and buildings etc. Boots and thick socks are recommended if you intend a lot of walking.2) When do the Christmas markets start?
Technically Christmas here starts on the Feast of Mikulas which is on or about December 6th. This is covered in the "Family Prague Christmas" further down the page. The markets are active from this time.3) Where are the Markets?
There are 4 central markets. The largest is at the Old Town Square, smaller versions are on Wenceslas Square and Namesti Miru and there'll be a small one on Namesti Republiky. These are better described below:The Old Town Square Prague Christmas Market is the biggest and oldest. The square has the official Christmas tree, a range of art, craft and a wide selection of food/drink stalls (the food and drink available is covered in more detail in the next section). There'll be a kiddies pony-ride area at the back of the Jan Hus monument and a viewing deck in the middle of the square so you can take some pictures etc. If you are coming here with kids then either keep close hold of them or agree a meeting point if you get separated. It's a crush. Metro Staromestske Namesti is the closest stop.
The Wenceslas Square Prague Christmas Market is located in the lower half of the square. It will have the same type of stalls but a smaller selection. The blacksmith is always popular (as it's the warmest place) as are the drink stalls. There is no Christmas tree on Wenceslas square but there'll be a lot of building and street decoration which makes the area look very nice and makes for great pictures. Metro Mustek is the closest stop or the Vaclavske Namesti or Vodickova tram stop.
The Namesti Miru (Peace Square) Prague Christmas Market is my own personal favourite. Little bit further out i.e. 15 minute walk from the top of Wenceslas Square but much more of what a Christmas market is all about. Lots of independent stalls with a range of local produce. Not so much battery operated flashing bobbly headwear here. It will have a tree which will be decorated but not to the extent of the Old Town Square. If walking from the top of Wenceslas Square go one block to the right. This is the street called Anglicka. Cross the road into Anglicka and follow it to the end where you'll find the market. Metro Namesti Miru (one stop from Museum) is the closest stop.
The Republic Square Prague Christmas Market is located on the cobblestoned area in front of the Palladium shopping centre. This is the smallest of the markets. Probably less than 20 stalls but far more space to move around in and prices will be cheaper than the Old Town Square Christmas market which is only 200 metres away. As we normally drive into town we are more likely to park at the Palladium, get a drink at this market and look at the stalls before going to the Old Town market for the tree etc. Namesti Republiky is the nearest metro. You won't find any Carps getting knocked senseless here, if you want to see that I recommend you visit Andel (in front of the metro exit).
4) What's to eat and drink?
This is going to be your favourite part. Ducking in and out of stalls for quick snacks, beer and boiled wine etc whilst perusing the sights etc. I'll try to describe the choice:To drink:
Svavrene Vino - This is mulled wine and may also be called "Gluwein" as many visitors here may recognise the German version. At this level the wine is very basic and most people would not waste good wine by boiling it anyway. The wine may be served in a glass if you intend drinking it at the place where you bought it or more likely in a plastic cup that you can take away. Try it from a few places as the wine used will vary from place to place.
Grog - My own favourite - This should be a one part rum to 4 parts hot water served with a piece of lemon and sweetened to your choice. Instant warmness, energising and leaves a pleasant aftertaste.
Medovina - You'll find at least one stall that serves this drink. In Czech "Med" is honey so you won't be surprised that Medovina is honey-wine and this is the alcoholic version. Beautiful golden appearance that you'll lose if it comes in a plastic cup so go for the glass on this one.To eat:
Spit Roast - On the Old Town Square Christmas market there will be at least one spit-roast going on. Always pork. They'll carve a portion direct onto your plate usually with a slice of bread and you can add your own mustard.
Sausages - The small sausage (Frankfurter style) is called "parek" and normally you get two. The larger dark-red version is "Klobasa" and the white one is "Bavorska" (slightly spiced). The Czech style is to have a sausage on a plate with an accompanying slice of bread and sauce/mustard but on the markets they try and sell you the "hot-dog" which may be served in the more American style.
Bowl food - Some Christmas market food stalls will serve from a tray of food. The most popular of these is the Czech "Halusky". This is a very filling mix of tiny pieces of dumpling mixed with fried bacon. My advice is to take a small portion as they usually skimp on the amount of bacon used this can make it taste a bit bland. Some stalls will charge a bit extra for a portion or sour cream to go with it. Definitely have something to drink at the same time.Trdelnik - This is your dessert or a snack. Its a sweet bread mix with different flavours. My favourite is the cinnamon trdlo. The mix is wrapped around a revolving cylinder and takes about 15 minutes to cook. There will be trdlo at various stages of cooking so you won't have to wait. When you first get it, it will be piping hot but, eat it as quickly as possible because it cools down rapidly. Best eaten with a coffee.
1) Calculate your money as close as possible to the price and use coins if possible. If you use a high value note you should know what to expect back.
2) Anything "flashing" will die within 24 hours of buying it.
3) If you choose anything from a display, inspect what they give you to make sure you are happy with it especially clothes sizes and items of a breakable nature.
4) Christmas Markets are pickpocket hot spots.
A Family Christmas
Of course, in the shopping centres a Prague Christmas begins some time in mid-November or even earlier but, the actual Prague Christmas celebration starts in the first week of Advent normally on the 4th, 5th or 6th of December with the feast of Mikulas.
Mikulas (pronounced mikoo-lash) is the Czech Father Christmas. In England we also have Mikulas but, we know him by his international name of "St Nicholas" or more recently "Santa Claus". Whereas in large parts of the western world, Santa Claus is know firmly mixed in with the celebrations of the 25th of December, in Czech he remains part of the Advent celebrations.
This is primarily a celebration for children in the first week of December. Many places will have a planned Mikulas visit like schools and clubs etc but, some families prefer to stay at home and have a visit there (normally a friend or relative plays the part). The format is always the same, Mikulas is dressed all in white in the style of a Bishop. He has a long white beard and is flanked on his sides by two characters. One is Cert (pronounced Chert - the devil) who'll have horns on his head, be dressed in rags, carrying a chain and have a dirty face. The other is an Angel who'll be dressed in white or gold and carries a paper scroll. Mikulas takes his position centre-stage with the devil and the Angel in attendance. Mikulas takes the paper scroll from the Angel (this contains the names of the children watching). As each name is called out, the child approaches Mikulas and he'll ask if the child has been good that year. Mikulas may have been informed about some naughtiness and reminds the child to listen to their parents. He may call on Cert (the devil) to scorn the child to remind them they are taking the wrong path (children under 5 often cry but, the effect of the perceived threat of not getting a present normally overcomes this and parents will use Cert as a character in stories that promote good over evil). The child then normally has to sing something to Mikulas or show him something that has been made especially for him. At that point, the child gets some small present normally accompanied by a small piece of coal (the coal indicates that the child had been naughty a few times during the previous year). In central Prague there will be hundreds of Mikulas's, Certs and Angels wandering around normally for tourist photos. The Old Town Square will be awash with flashing horns.
Prague Christmas - The Tree
Mikulas night normally heralds the arrival of the Old Town Square Christmas tree and the opening of the Prague Christmas Markets (depends on the day of the week). Each year the Prague Christmas tree seems to have a different look which has a primary colour of red white or blue. The Prague Christmas tree is always located in the same place in front and slightly to the left of the Church of Our Lady Tyn. It will stand approximately 20 metres tall. In 2003 a particularly windy evening blew down the Christmas tree and severely injured some people. Since then the size of the tree has been reduced but, the decoration has been improved. There are three types of Christmas trees here. The most popular is "smrk" which have very sharp pins on the branches. The second type is "Jedle" which has softer pins on the branches and normally has a dark green appearance. Lastly there is "Borovice" which has the cactus-like appearance of the branches growing up instaead of the usual "out and down" look.
Prague Christmas - Markets
People taking advantage of Prague Cheap Hotels deals will often be coming to visit the markets and enjoy the festivities. The main Prague Christmas markets are on the Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square with smaller Prague Christmas markets at Namesti Republiky and Namesti Miru. All Prague Christmas markets sell approximately the same stuff ranging from cheap Christmas tree decorations to more expensive ceramics and crystalware. Anything flashing i.e. horns, santa hats and badges etc will last about 2 days if you're lucky. Sometimes at the rear of the Myslbek shopping centre will be a small Prague Christmas market but, it is better known as the location of the Christmas ice-rink (Dec 1st to Jan 1st). In the Old Town Square they have a raised viewing platform which gets you about 5 or 6 metres above the ground to give you a great view of the main Prague Christmas markets, tree and church. Food and drink in the Christmas markets will include "parek v rohliku" (Czech hot-dog), several types of sausage served with bread and mustard/ketchup, svavrene vino (mulled wine), grog (hot rum and water) and for dessert you can get a Trdlo (kind of hard pancake that has a cylindrical appearance). The childrens' stuff in the Christmas markets is usually open until 4pm.
Prague Christmas - Sweets
At any time during December people will buy their real Christmas tree and put up their decorations. During a Prague Christmas you can see literally hundreds of trees outside on balconies of apartments in the centre of town. Around this time the tradition of making "Christmas sweets" begins. There are often competitions for the "biggest, longest, heaviest, most colourful" etc sweets but, mostly your work is judged by how many types of sweets are made and how nice they taste. "Sweets" in this case are more like biscuits. Most types of sweets use either a cream or jam filling with a topping of cooking chocolate and the addition of a seasonal nut i.e. we use mostly walnuts. Most sweets are then put into tins and left for at least a week to soften and it's not uncommon to end up with a couple of hundred sweets to eat and give to friends. As well as sweets, the second thing being homemade is the eggnog (vajecny Cognac) made from egg yolks, sweet milk, evaporated milk and rum. Normally this is left to settle for a week or two before drinking. A Prague Christmas is not the same if you didn't bake your own sweets.
Prague Christmas - One week to go
With one week left Czechs will be finishing their Christmas sweets and those who like it will now turn their attention to the Carp. Between one and two weeks before Christmas you'll see "swimming pools" or large vats appearing outside supermarkets and on street corners. These contain hundreds of Carp brought in from special "Carp ponds" around Prague (our village has two of these ponds). Here's where people of a nervous disposition should skip the rest of this paragraph. The carp is bought alive and to keep it fresh it is not uncommon for the fish to be kept in the bath at home until the time comes to prepare it. It's normally "dad's job" to stun the fish with a sharp blow to the top of it's head with a wooden club. It then has to be cut up, washed and filleted. Why this all happens is explained in the next paragraph but, I can tell you that we don't do this. We'll buy a "fish mix" and a nice piece of Salmon.
Prague Christmas - December 24th
The Czech Christmas. Until I worked in Europe I was totally ignorant of the fact that not all people celebrate Christmas on the 25th. In fact, most of mainland Europe celebrates on the evening of the 24th. In a Prague Christmas the morning of the 24th starts off with Vanocka (pronounced va-notch-ka) for breakfast which is the Czech Christmas cake. It's sweet like a very light fruit cake. Later in the morning we finish the last-minute food preparations. My job here is the potato salad. For us, this means bolied potatoes, boiled eggs, ham/salami, onions, guerkins and peas. This is all mixed up and put in the fridge to cool. For lunch, Czechs will eat their fresh carp (fresh from the bath......) normally served with only potatoes. We use the "fish mix" which is a mix of "fish innards" which goes to make a nice soup. Either way, the tradition is NOT to eat meat at lunchtime on the 24th. If this is achieved then you may see the golden pig later in the evening. If you've got young children then they'll be going to bed in the afternoon so it's now that the tree comes out for decoration. We dress smartly for the evening meal. The dinner table is prepared with an extra place setting and a Swedish candle. As loads of walnuts have been cracked over the previous couple of weeks, usually we take five of the half shells and put a small birthday candle into each. The "walnut boats" are then floated in water and the candles lit (the person whose walnut boat stays lit longest wins). In fact there are a few customs surrounding walnuts and apples etc which generally are supposed to foretell wealth and happiness (or death and sadness as the case may be). The evening meal can be a light meal or a multi-course affair. We prefer a light meal and generally it's salmon baked in pastry in the shape of a fish but, some people have the classic Veprove rizek (fried pork in breadcrumbs). The meal is served with the potato salad that was prepared earlier in the day. Nobody is allowed to leave the table on their own (means bad luck). After dinner, the children go to the window to see if they can see a star to wish on. They then go upstairs while the Christmas tree is lit and a small bell is rung to tell them that Jezisek (little Jesus) has been and left some presents. The rest of the evening is normally spent playing with presents or watching a classic Christmas film which is usually "tri orizsky pro Popelku" (like Cinderella).
The English Christmas in Prague. The day starts with breakfast. The finishing of the Vanocka from the day before and I prepare the main meal which is usually a 4Kg turkey. While the turkey is cooking we open the presents and spend most of the morning playing with them. The lunch table is set with the extra place and a Swedish candle is lit. The only two changes to the previous day are that we don't dress smartly for the English Christmas lunch and we have the addition of Christmas crackers which provide small presents, paper hats and silly jokes which only people born and raised in England will ever understand. Turkey is served with roast potatoes, brussel sprouts, peas, sage&onion stuffing, Yorkshire puddings and thick gravy. The afternoon is generally spent playing or lazing in front of the television with a favourite film or else resting. Have a happy Christmas.