USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Czech Republic’
Customs
Foodways
Holidays

Easter Lamb Cake

*Collector note: The Lamb cake in question is a cake in the shape of a lamb, not a cake made from lamb.

Informant: “In my family, we always had a lamb cake for Easter, I think this was a Central European tradition, mostly in Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. When I grew up in Chicago, there were a lot of German people in the neighborhood, and there were always German bakeries full of lamb cakes around Easter. The connection to Easter was that Easter was about Christ, you know, the Lamb of God. And so we would eat these lamb cakes for Easter. My mother would make it, so else sometimes we bought them in bakeries in Chicago. My aunt [M] said that her mother made lamb cakes as well. I always thought it was funny having lamb cake because we would tell people about it and people would say ‘oh, it’s like a meatloaf or something’ when really there was no lamb in it, is was just shaped like a lamb and didn’t have any meat at all. Though I know some people would sometimes hollow out the cake and put strawberry jam inside so when you cut it it looks like its bleeding [laughs]. I know other people would color their lamb cake with red food coloring to make the inside look like meat, but I always thought that would seem a bit to gory for me”

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector’s analysis: This particular tradition is an interesting take on some very core Christian symbolism. In the Christian faith (or perhaps, more specifically in the Catholic faith), there is this idea that the religious figure Jesus Christ was sacrificed for mankind. Because of the old, pre-Christian tradition of sacrificing ‘pure’ animals for religious purposes including lamb, Jesus Christ is frequently referred to as “The Lamb of God”. Thus, there is a connection between the Easter holiday and lambs. As for why the tradition is eating a lamb shaped cake rather than an actual lamb, the most likely explanation comes from the Catholic tradition of not eating meat on religious holidays, to which Easter was no exception. It should also be noted for this reason that the Czech republic, as well as the other Countries that the informant believes this tradition originated from, were all primarily Catholic nations during the period of time in which this tradition originated. As a side note, in this collector’s opinion, these cakes are absolutely delicious!

Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Foodways

Czech New Years Herring

Informant: “When I was growing up, I remember every year my parents, my mother and father and I, we would always eat herring on New Years Eve. I remember it was supposed to bring good luck for the whole year. Specifically, you were supposed to get a can or jar of pickled herring, though it’s actually hard to find in the Northwest, though I still go out and buy some Herring, in fact this year, I happened to call my Aunt [M] who is also Czech, and we joked about how we had both gone out and made sure that we had our can of pickled herring for the New Year, and we laughed about the importance of, you know, getting our Herring.”

Collector: Was there any specific reason for the herring as opposed to any other sort of fish?

Informant: Well you know the Czech Republic, where this tradition originated from… actually I think it started in Bohemia, and then it became a Czech tradition… but both [of those countries] are landlocked and so fish tended to be hard to get because they had to transport it all the way from the sea coast. And herring was always a big deal, always a special thing because it was more expensive, and it showed how prosperous you were to be able to afford herring! And in order to keep the fish to stay fresh and task good after they transported it from the sea to inland, they would pickle it and preserve it. Actually, the other fish people ate a lot was carp, which is in the same family as goldfish, and wealthy people in the Czech republic would raise carp in ponds on their estate, so that was also a very special fish to eat because it was also a sign of wealth. Also, most [Czech people] were catholic, which meant that they had meatless Fridays, but you know they could still eat fish.

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector Analysis: This particular tradition is but one of many New Years traditions around the world. In this case, the consumption of Herring, an expensive fish at the time, was supposed to bring one good luck for the following year. One idea which the informant brought up was that by eating expensive herring on new years eve, it would alter your luck to make you more prosperous so that you could eat herring more often!

Customs
Earth cycle
Foodways
Holidays

Traditional Czech Christmas meals and cookies

*Collector Note: The Czech Republic, previously known as Czechoslovakia, which was a part of the Kingdom of Bohemia before that, was primarily a Catholic nation, and as of such the majority population would not eat meat on Fridays in keeping with their religious beliefs.

Informant: “Around Christmas time, people in the Czech Republic had a couple of special meals that they would prepare. One that I can think of were dumplings with different fruits inside of them that were usually served on meatless Fridays for supper. These dumplings were a big thing in Central European culture. They were normally served with cottage cheese and melted butter. They were sweet, but they were often served as main dishes like crepes. My grandmother made them a lot, and they were typically easy to make. They were just made out of Flour, water, and fruit. Otherwise, around Christmas, Czech people were big on fancy cookies and deserts. My grandmother and aunt used to make a couple dozen kinds of cookies for Christmas. One of the main ones were Kolacky, which were round pastries made with cream cheese, butter, flour, and fruit fillings like prunes or apricot. Sometimes we would make them with poppyseed. Other cookies we made were Angel Wings, which were sort of a combination of more traditional Czech cookies and other [Central European] culture. Vanilla or Walnut crescents were a big special one. We would make gingerbread cookies like gingersnaps. There was one type of Christmas Bread called Vanocka, which was a sweet bread formed like a big braid, which would have dried fruit, raisins, and orange slices inside of it. They usually had almonds in it as well. Czechs were always really great bakers”

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector Analysis: This is a pretty straightforward interpretation of a widely spread tradition of making special foods and desserts for the Christmas Season. As an interesting side note, one of the conditions that the informant had for sharing this story was that the collector could not post the actual recipes for any of the cookies beyond simply a list of the general ingredients, as the recipes are apparently a family secret. All of the cookies sampled by the collector were, in the collector’s opinion, delicious.

Kolachy, a traditional Czech Christmas cookie

Kolachy, a traditional Czech Christmas cookie

Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Legends
Narrative

Saint Wenceslaus

Informant: “Saint Wenceslaus was a big saint in the Czech Republic, there is this well known carol about him, though I can’t remember exactly how it goes. He was a bit like Saint Nicholas or Santa like we have in the U.S., except that he took care of people as opposed to giving gifts. The legend goes that Good King Wenceslaus was out walking in the snow and he found a poor person and gave him money, and how that what you’re supposed to do at Christmas is give money to help poor people. A bunch of legends built up around him, like the carol talks about how on this dark and stormy night, we was walking with his helper, and he told his helper to walk in his footsteps in the snow behind him, which was supposed to have a Christ-like connotation to it. An supposedly the whole kingdom under his reign was a wonderful golden age because they had this wonderful king who was a saint. A lot of Catholic churches in the Czech republic and also in places in the United States with a lot of Czech people would be called Saint Wenceslaus’s, or just Saint Wen’s. There is actually a big statue of him in the main square in Prague that is supposed to have the original king’s actual helmet on it!”

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector Analysis: This is an interesting legend, and provides an interesting counterpoint to the classic “Winter gift giving story”. Whereas most Christmas traditions involve giving gifts you your family and loved ones, the story of Saint Wenceslaus advocates giving to those people you don’t know who are in need, specifically the poor. Saint Wenceslaus is the Catholic patron saint of Bohemia, which is currently a region within the Czech Republic. This particular legend also shows the strong connection there was between the old European royalty and the Christian faith.

Customs
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Czech Funeral

“I went to a funeral recently for my Czech nanny who passed away recently. Hana practically raised me, so her death was very, very difficult for me. I thought that I wouldn’t even be able to handle going to the funeral, my emotions were so high. But it was unlike any funeral I have ever been to. Most funerals are miserable, everybody crying, everybody in black. They’re awful experiences, and I hope you never have to go to one. But this one was different. This one was exactly what I needed to help grieve. So it was actually a celebration of her life. Whenever anyone spoke, they were just to recall fun times they had had together. Her favorite music was playing. Everyone was wearing bright colors. The old and the young were all mingling and engaging with one another. It was beautiful. I think that’s how a lot of the world celebrates death, or at least they should. I think I heard someone say that it’s the Czech . . . or I guess Slavic people in general have a healthier outlook on death than most.”

The informant has never lived outside of her hometown in Orange County. The experience was so novel to her that it began to represent much of her understanding of modern European culture, as she now believes that such funeral practices are more common in Europe. The informant really stressed the communion of the old and young at this funeral, as no one was segregated into groups based on age or gender. Given the deep Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of the Baltic regions of Europe, such an funeral seems very uncharacteristic, given traditional Christian death rituals. Perhaps this informant’s experience is indicative of changing times in which, as she said, a healthier outlook on death has become the norm.

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