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
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
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.