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Czech Holiday Traditions: St. Nicholas Day Explained

2 December, 2019

As the holiday season draws near, it’s a fun time to compare and contrast the traditions of your home country with the traditions of the Czech Republic. While there are many similarities throughout the world, there is one tradition that marks the beginning of the holiday season that baffles foreigners: St. Nicholas Day. While many people who celebrate St. Nicholas day associate it with candy-filled shoes, you’ll notice that it’s celebrated very differently on the streets of Prague and in Czech homes. Here’s what you need to know in preparation for the week’s festivities.

  1. If you’re out in the city on the evening of December 5, you’ll likely see a bizarre cast of characters roaming the streets. The three main characters associated with the Czech St. Nicholas Day are an angel, the devil and jolly old St. Nick himself.
  2. Even for the grown-ups among us, the day can be slightly unnerving, given the Czechs’ commitment to the costumes. You’ll see rattling chains, giant sacks (supposedly full of naughty children) and more.
  3. Kind of like reverse trick-or-treating, the trio approaches children and asks them if they’ve been good. The children, who will typically answer yes, are asked to sing a song or recite a poem in exchange for sweets. Supposedly, the especially naughty children are taken by the devil to hell—or simply given a potato instead.
  4. St. Nicholas carries a large book with a naughty and nice list, much like Santa Claus. He will ask the child about their good and bad deeds and decide if they deserve a reward.
  5. The devil is there to scare the children into being good, whereas the angel is there to protect the kids and hand out treats to those who have earned them. Parents say that this is a highly effective way to ensure heavenly peace during the remaining holiday season. 
  6. While in larger cities this typically happens in the city squares, in smaller towns, parents enlist their friends and family members to dress up in the costumes and visit children in their homes.
  7. The St. Nicholas tradition is reportedly based on a Greek bishop who left a gift of money on the windowsill of three poor girls in the 4th century A.D. to save them from a life of destitution. He has been named the patron saint of children and those in need.

Head out this week to see the tradition in action—we recommend Wenceslas Square, but beware, you might just be asked if you’ve been good or bad this year. What are your favorite holiday traditions from home? Is there anything new you were surprised by here? Let us know!