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December 5th: St Nicholas Day

The Czechs have many bizarre and unusual traditions: the Christmas carp in the bathtub, and whipping the women in their lives in exchange for shots of alcohol at Easter, just to name a few.

On December 5th is possibly the Czech Republic’s most bizarre, and terrifying tradition: St Nicholas Day.

There are a few legends about him, the most known is probably that one, which says how he saved there poor young sisters.

Their father had no money, so the girls were about to become prostitutes to make their living. Nicholas heard of it, and at night, when no one could have seen him, threw three purses filled with gold coins into the house, so the sisters were saved. Nicholas inherited a lot of money from his rich parents and thus he gave many other anonymous gifts to the poorest people.

Later it was found, that the benefactor was he, and after his death, rich people were anonymously gifting the poor ones in his honor.

On the evening before his svátek (name day) on December 6, squares in villages, towns, and cities around the Czech Republic come alive for a pre-Christmas celebration that is almost as big a deal, at least for children, as the full-blown Christmas holiday on December 24.

You will notice people walking around in groups of three, wearing eccentric costumes: Angel, devil, and Mikuláš go to see the kids! They usually ring on the door, parents bring the kids to the doorstep, St. Nicholas asks the kids whether they behaved well during the last year.

Children who have been well-behaved during the year will be rewarded with sweets or a small gift. The more impressive their song or poem is, the bigger this reward will be. Those unfortunate children who have not behaved well during the year will be thrust into the devil’s sack and… carried to hell!

With this in mind, small children are understandably worried by the presence of the Devil. So when St. Nicholas and his entourage approach, the children sing their song or recite their poem with great gusto.

Needless to say, Mikulas acts as a strong incentive to be good throughout the year!

Preschools usually teach children a poem to recite, and sometimes they let the children go in pairs to ease stage fright and perhaps to speed up the process.

So if you are in Prague on the 5th of December, it is worth it to take a walk in the city after the sunset. You can admire wonderful masks of Nicholas, beautiful angels and scary devils. Traditionally, the biggest meeting of them takes place in Old Town Square every year.

 

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