How carp became the star of Czech Christmas dinners

It’s a chilly December morning in Prague as I wake up and go through my morning routine, before heading out to teach my last few English classes as the winter holidays begin. At this time, I’m still living with my host family from my study abroad program. We share one bathroom for the entire house, so when I see a chance to take a shower before work, I take it.

This morning is different, however; I hear splashing noises as I approach the bathroom, but find it odd that someone taking a bath would leave the door wide open. Gingerly, I step inside, and there they are: two greenish-brown fish, swimming in circles within our tub.

“Did you meet our new pets?” my host mother asked me later in the day. “I bought them this morning. I wanted a surprise for the children for after school.”

There’d be no shower for me that day; in fact, there were no showers for me until after the holidays were over.

Carp in the bathtubCarp in the bathtub — Photo courtesy of iStock / benedamiroslav

I’d loosely been informed of the Czech Christmas tradition involving the keeping of carp (known as kapr in Czech) in the household bathtub, which later would be be killed and served for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s one of the most interesting things about Czech Christmastime, aside from children rushing outside to spot a “flying baby Jesus” in the sky – he’s the one that brings the presents, not Santa Claus, according to my host mother – while the parents pop the presents under a freshly decorated tree.

A holiday dinner typically includes appetizers of obložené chlebíčky (open-faced sandwiches with various toppings), or a fish soup, and side dishes of bramborový salát (potato salad) and sauteed root vegetables. Sometimes vánočka, a semi-sweet bread similar to challah, is served, along with sugar cookies for dessert.

Carp and potato salad, the main mealCarp and potato salad, the main meal — Photo courtesy of Pavel Ševela

The main dish, however, is usually carp. It’s a denser fish, a bottom feeder resulting in meat that’s thick like salmon, but more mild in flavor. It’s filleted, breaded and fried, and served with a sweet plum sauce, a throwback to the 18th century when it was sweetened (an attempt to distract eaters from the typically muddy taste carp is sometimes associated with).

The tradition dates back thousands of years, to when monks in the country would raise carp and eat it during important Christian holidays, according to Judy Dempsey’s research for an article in The New York Times. “Cultivating carp became quite an art form thanks to the Rozemberk family, who from 1366 until the beginning of the 17th century ruled southern Bohemia…To this day, it is these lakes that provide Czechs with their Christmas dish.”

“The fish was kind of a pet,” Honza Bartoš, a cook from Jindrichuv Hradec tells me. He grew up a short distance outside of the Southern Bohemian town of Třeboň, where most Czech carp is caught. “We would give it a name, feed it, talk to it and stuff.”

Bartoš’ memory is a common one for most Czechs, who often recall having their pet take up bathroom real estate for a few days before Christmas Eve.

“When we were really young,” Bartoš adds, “We didn’t make the connection that our pet was the thing we were eating with dinner. We were just told stories, like that it disappeared with Christmas magic. When we were older, we … figured it out.”

These memories are so strong that children’s storybooks have even been written on the topic. In most of them, the children are often conflicted on whether to eat their new pets, as per tradition, or rescue them.

Indeed, some Czechs today opt to “catch and release” their carps, to align better with their morals, or merely eat something else at Christmas.

Czechs shop for carp in Christmas marketsCzechs shop for carp in Christmas markets — Photo courtesy of Andrew Stawarz / flickr

“It’s so cruel to eat carp, but it’s also part of a tradition, it’s part of what I grew up with,” says Lenka Panušková, a school teacher in Prague. “For my children, I wish to teach them how to treat animals, but also wish to keep in the spirit of the holiday.”

Panušková lets her children choose the fish at the market, and they keep it until Christmas Eve, but then it is allowed to stay alive and become part of the tradition. “We still make the potato salad, but we serve something else, sometimes chicken cutlets or fried up vegetables instead.”

Aside from ethics, some Czechs have opted to skip carp at Christmas because of its complexity. Martina Koldova, a textile designer in Prague, recalled how involved filleting a carp was for her growing up.

“Sure, it was fun to have the carp in the house, but then you had to actually kill the thing,” she tells me. “You had to hit its head, or rip it off with your hands. It was always a mess. I remember the smell, and my father trying to clean it, and cut it. Most times you had to watch out for bones. Now as an adult, I don’t find it worth the trouble.”

She still enjoys the idea of collecting fish scales for good luck, however. “That was a nice memory, finishing the meal and keeping a scale. It was supposed to be good for prosperity in the new year.”

Those curious enough to try the tradition themselves need only visit a Czech Christmas market and take their pick. Large plastic tanks filled with water and fish are situated amongst vendors selling wooden toys, glass jewelry and gingerbread snacks. Select a fish and have it weighed, then carry it home in a sturdy plastic bag (sort of like winning a gold fish at a carnival, only several pounds heavier).

Then, it’s bath time.