Why Europe's 'least religious country' is among the best at Christmas

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By David Hutt
Revelers prepare for a traditional St Nicholas procession in the village of Valasska Polanka, Czech Republic, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019
Revelers prepare for a traditional St Nicholas procession in the village of Valasska Polanka, Czech Republic, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019   -   Copyright  AP Photo

Miloslav isn’t having much luck. A fundraiser for a Christian charity, he’s left kicking at the snowy ground as people evade his attempts to strike up a conversation near a Christmas market in Olomouc, a city in eastern Czech Republic. 

“Many people don’t want to stop to talk about Jesus Christ; they prefer to drink punč at the market,” he says, referring to the liquored mulled wine that’s the main tipple at this time of year. “But more people are a little more willing to talk around Christmas time.”

Only around a third of Czechs believe in God, the lowest rate in Europe, yet their Christmases remain wrapped up in religious traditions. 

“It may sound a bit strange but despite the low religiosity level, Christmas is the most important holiday for Czechs. But they see it much more as a family and traditional holiday. The religious meaning is tucked away in the back,” says David Václavík, associate professor at Masaryk University’s Department for the Study of Religions.

Children still write wish lists to the Baby Christ (or “Ježíšek”) who delivers Christmas presents each year, rather than a Westernised Santa Claus. The traditional carols and songs still sung are religion-laden. On 5 December, most towns will find people dressed up as St. Nicholas (Mikuláš), who, accompanied by a costumed angel and devil, deliver either a treat or punishment to children depending on their behaviour that year.

Life-size nativity scenes aren’t uncommon in main squares, although, Václavík says, “ten or fifteen years ago…I had to explain the individual figures in the Christmas nativity scene”. Newspapers are festooned with features on the Christmas traditions of yesteryear and interviews with priests. Carp and potato salad, a traditional Christmas feast from the 19th century, remains the main dish for families on 24 December, when some households still play superstitious games to define their luck for the next year.

Petr David Josek/AP
FILE: Revelers depicting devils cross a creek during a traditional St Nicholas procession in the village of Valasska Polanka, Czech Republic, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019.Petr David Josek/AP

Every December, a local pollster asks the public about their religious beliefs. Last year, around 35% of respondents said they said they believed in a God, down from 39% in 1995 but up slightly from 30% in 2012. 

But it also finds that views on religion change around the Christmas season. Whereas only a tenth of Czechs say they go to church regularly during the year, around two-fifths will attend a church service over the Christmas season, according to the poll. And church attendance is an important Christmas tradition for a third of families who do not believe in God.

“I believe, and experience tells me, that people are more open to listening to biblical stories and biblical messages [over the Christmas period]. That they are more open to receiving spiritual things,” said Jan Dymáček, of Maranatha, a local Christian NGO. “Whether people's ideas about religion change just around Christmas I can't say, but certainly, people are more sensitive and willing to talk about religious issues,” he added.

Across Europe, a now-established tradition of Christmas is complaining that the holiday has forgotten its “true meaning”. Newspapers in the Czech Republic invariably complain about consumerism and religious groups sometimes bemoan the lack of understanding about the holiday’s Christian package, but analysts reckon that claims of Christmas having lost its “meaning” are rarer than in some other European countries.

In 2008, a student group created the “Save The Baby Jesus” campaign (“Zachraňte Ježíška”) to preserve what they alleged was the introduction of non-Czech traditions, although it attracted only around 10,000 signatories for a petition. The rarely active Facebook page of “Antisanta.cz”, another group, has a little over 1,000 followers.

“It's pretty ridiculous,” says Václavík, “when the ‘fighters’ for a ‘traditional’ Christmas focus this fight on ‘saving’ Baby Jesus, but no one is taking him away from them.”

Petr David Josek/AP2011
FILE: A trumpeter plays notes as the traditional Christmas market opens in the Old Town Square in Prague, Czech Republic, Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011.Petr David Josek/AP2011

The religious undertones of a Czech Christmas have survived other attempts at forced change. 

During four decades of communist rule, attempts were made to replace Baby Jesus with Grandfather Frost (Děda Mráz), the traditional Russian bearer of gifts. 

“Children of workers are no longer born in barns. Even Baby Jesus has grown up and grown old, he has grown a beard and is becoming Grandfather Frost,” the communist prime minister of Czechoslovakia, Antonín Zápotocký, said in a radio address to children in 1952.

The communists failed. Analysts say that Christmas traditions, whether understood as Christian or not, remain safe in the Czech Republic. And for most Czechs, the holidays are chiefly homebound. 

“Our Christmas became predominantly holidays centred around the family,” said Dana Hamplová, a sociologist at the Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

But this Christmas “will be a difficult one for many families,” said a charity volunteer giving out free coffee in Olomouc. 

With inflation now around 16%, almost two-thirds of Czechs say they plan to spend less on Christmas presents this year, according to a survey conducted recently by a local pollster.

According to the Czech Statistical Office, retail sales decreased by more than 9% year-on-year in October, a month for pre-Christmas shopping, the local newspaper Rozhlas reported. Jakub Seidler, the chief economist of the Czech Banking Association, was quoted saying he expects a 10% fall in sales over the Christmas season.

“Maybe more people will see the spiritual side of Christmas this year,” says Miloslav, the charity fundraiser.