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Czech Christmas Songs

Early Medieval Bohemia, a historically defined space that today falls under the Czech Republic, gave birth to many carols, the earliest of which are found in manuscripts dating back to the 11th century. These chants, however, were not Christmas carols as we know them today but rather Christian songs meant to be sung in churches and monasteries to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Though secluded at first, these songs spread very quickly and were received with open arms. Many of them became part of the traditional folklore and were sung during caroling, which took place on various occasions throughout December and January (from St. Nicholas's day on December 6th to Candle Mass on February 2nd). Although the ritual of going from house to house with a song was an important part of Christian folklore, the Czech name for 'caroling' and 'carol' - koleda - links its origins back to the pre-Christian festivities that took part during the calendas, the first days of the new year. While caroling was still a popular pastime some decades ago, today the tradition has usually dwindled down to the singing of carols in the family circle.

It did not take long for proper carols to start being composed, and one of the oldest and most popular ones is first mentioned in the 14th century. It is called Narodil se Kristus Pán (Christ Our Lord Has Been Born), has a long list of strophes that no one ever seems to remember, and is easily one of the most played and well-known carols in the country. Interestingly, it is also the only Christmas song that people tend to rise up to, as a mark of respect, even though most Czechs today proclaim themselves atheist.

Most of the carols sung today come from a later era, and often have the name of a 17th-19th century composer attached to them. They include a wide variety of compositions, from Christmas oratorios and masses, of which the most famous is the Bohemian Christmas Mass by Jakub Jan Ryba, to shorter and very melodious songs which quickly became common. An example would be a lullaby that Mary sings to Baby Jesus, called Chtíc, aby spal (Wanting Him to Sleep), or a long, mournful song known as Byla cesta, byla ušlapaná (The Road was Travelled), about a conversation between Mary and Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist.

Modern Christmas songs have taken a wide step away from the traditional Christian take on the subject and tend to have either an ironic or a more depressing approach to the holiday than the joyful and straightforward carols of the older days. While many of the modern songs are little but variations on popular world music with Czech lyrics, such as Rolničky (Jingle Bells), original songs have been composed as well. Starting in the 70s with the production of a band called Golden Kids, local musicians - at least the ones that managed to perform under the Communist regime - started coming up with modern songs on the theme of Christmas. To this day, Karel Gott's Vánoce ve Zlaté Praze (Christmas in a Prague of Gold) remains a well-known collection, Jiří Suchý's Purpura has managed to reach the status of a traditional carol, and the iconic single Vánoce, Vánoce (Christmas, Christmas) by the musical duo Josef Vomáčka and Zdeněk Borovec is, even today, played over and over. The mass popularity of this particular song probably stems from the fact that it takes an ironic view of traditional celebrations and recounts a series of unfortunate events that have befallen an unlucky family determined to celebrate their Christmas in a traditional manner.

As a fun trivia fact, the popular English carol Good King Wenceslas, sung usually on the feast of Stephen (December 27th), tells the tale of a notable personage from Czech history, a Bohemian prince called Wenceslas, one of the first Christians in the land. He was murdered by his brother Boleslaus and later canonized and proclaimed a patron of the country - it is thought that he was introduced to the Brits by the Bohemian princess Anne, who was married to Richard II.