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Baby’s first (Czech, German, American) Christmas

Today as you read The Art of Simple, I’m either carrying a little baby in my belly or in my arms. There’s no way to know which, of course, so I am focusing my pre-mamahood energy to tell you what our little family has planned for the holiday season. 

My husband is a German Czech; I’m American. We’ve done what most couples do, grabbing a few traditions from each side of the family (and ocean!) and mixing them with some of our own.

1. Czech Holiday Customs

My first Czech Christmas dinner was hosted by my mother-in-law one Christmas Eve. She didn’t serve turkey like we would in the US; she didn’t prepare a duck like we would in Germany. She served carp.

Yes, carp.

Growing up in Montana, I had always learned that carp was the fish you threw back into the pond. These fish live in the pond mud and taste like it… unless you take the Czech approach to this fish.

Czechs go through a very tedious process of cleaning and readying the fish. Part of this process used to consist of keeping your fresh carp in your bathtub for several days leading up to Christmas Eve when your family would sit down for a holiday feast. Now you can purchase your carp ready to go.

Oh, and just remember that this is a “Czech custom,” not a “Czechoslovakian custom.” Czechoslovakia hasn’t existed as a country since 1993. I’d hear from my mother-in-law if I didn’t mention that!

As a new mom, I’m excited about the tradition of having a big meal on Christmas Eve like Czechs and Germans enjoy. I always remember my mom missing all the fun of Christmas Day. We were playing with presents; she was cooking dinner.

Want to add some Czech traditions to your holiday?

I make these Czech vanilla cookies (aka vanilkove rohlicky), translated from my husband’s Czech grandmother’s collection. Various forms of these cookies are made in Austria, Germany, and the Czech Republic all winter long. We also roast chestnuts on Christmas Eve, which is surprisingly simple to do.

christmas in berlinPhoto by Katie Clemons

2. German Holiday Customs

The first time I saw Saint Nicholas was in Berlin, Germany. He was riding on a white horse and pausing to visit with all the children in the park on December 6th.

Children leave a little hay or a carrot for the saint’s horse (not reindeer) in their shoes the night before. They sing a special Sinterklaas song, and they wake up to find little treats and toys in their shoes. He visited me for the first time that year; I was 25!

At our house, it’s a tradition to receive a little ornament in our shoes. As a new mom, I’m thinking baby’s first Christmas ornament this year!

Want to add some German traditions to your holiday?

Want a delicious German treat? Try roasting your own chestnuts or making Lebkuchen (German gingerbread cookies).

Advent is huge; in Berlin, shops would sell everything from Advent chocolate calendars and craft kits to Advent tea, which is a box of 24 winter teas.

3. American Holiday Customs

My grandpa used to make a traditional hot beverage called Tom and Jerrys with sprinkles of fresh-ground nutmeg on top. It was one of the only things he ever made in the kitchen.

Dozens of us would sip the frothy drink – alcoholic for the adults – under the Christmas tree that stretched to the extra-tall ceiling as my grandma played Christmas songs on the piano.

So much of who we are comes from the people and the traditions that have come before us. My husband and I follow this recipe for Tom and Jerrys every holiday. Perhaps our little one will discover the magic that comes in a Tom and Jerry mug, too.

Want to add some American traditions to your holiday?

My husband’s family never did stockings; St. Nicholas had already brought them little treats. I think stockings and Santa Claus are very American. So is most holiday music. Bing Crosby, John Denver, today’s pop stars – you name it. They’re singing English Christmas songs over the loudspeakers in northern European malls, too.

And then, of course, there’s the American tradition of fruit cake. But we won’t go there!

christmas scrapbook

Photo by Katie Clemons

4. Holiday Customs of Our Own

During my first Christmas abroad, I began a daily journal/scrapbook. As I did, I started to see how all the small moments of magic come together to really make a merry holiday, no matter where you are or who you’re with.

All month long, I wrote about those magical moments, like seeing St. Nicholas on his horse. I snapped a photo of what he left in my boots. Keeping a Christmas journal helped me focus on gratitude and joy of the season.

As a new mom, I can’t wait to dive into this tradition again! In a couple years, I’ll have our little guy help with some of the pages!

Want to incorporate our Christmas tradition into your holiday?

I use the “‘Tis the Season” Christmas scrapbook and card holder from Gadanke. This book is the perfect storycatching kit with colorful pages of writing prompts for you to document joys of the holiday. Tuck away Christmas cards and memorabilia, and reflect on past holidays and traditions.

Use the code STNICK to save 10% off your entire order at Explore personal journals, travel journals, baby books, kids’ scrapbooks and more. These books help writers discover their passions and chronicle their personal journeys. Discount good through Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013.

What types of international customs does your family have? Any that you’re thinking of adding?

Reading Time:

4 minutes





  1. Peter

    Czechoslovakia hasn’t existed for a few years but the Czech and Slovak traditions are pretty much the same. The two countries share most of the history. So I don’t think saying “Czechoslovakian customs” should offend anyone 🙂

    Thanks for the nice post.

    • Corrie

      Peter: my husband, who is Sloavak, would say otherwise (about customs). But, who am I to tell, I am German 🙂

    • zuzi

      exactly what i wanted to say! carp is the traditional christmas fish in slovakia also 🙂

      • Karin

        I’m from East Germany and we tended to have goose for Christmas with potato dumplings, and fish (carp) for New Years’ Day (which I always hated). I think other kinds of fresh fish were pretty hard to come by… But carps you can keep in a pond. 🙂

    • Karin

      I think the reason those 2 nationalities want to make a distinction now lies in the forced-together history of being under Soviet Russia. Just like there are now Serbs and Croats and no more Yugoslavia. Why not just go with it and even though it may seem not a big deal to you, let them be distinct, as it means a lot to them? I’m from East Germany and we strive to erase the West/East distinction that that Cold War legacy forced on us – for the other nations of the former Eastern bloc, it’s the opposite: regain your pre-Soviet distinction.

    • Miriam

      Our Chistmas is also quite a mix. My hubby is German, I am Slovak and we live now in Austria.
      We decided not to do the carp as the Slovaks and Czech woul do, but on 24.12. in the evening, it is always some fish.

  2. Grace

    I enjoyed this post Katie – thanks! I’m with you on not wanting to spend Christmas in the kitchen. This year we’ll do a lingering brunch, like other families do on local holidays where we are in the MidEast. We’ll eat olives, tomatoes, cheeses, cream & honey on fresh bread, multiple cups of tea… Mmm. Getting hungry now. The nice thing is that can all be readied the day before. Yes!!

  3. Grace

    p.s. CARP? That’s a new one! Haha!

  4. Katie

    I love the journal. What a great idea! And wonderful to learn about the German emphasis on Advent. Thank you for writing.

    • Kat

      Oh! One of our favorite children’s music CDs by Robbie Schaeffer has a song about a carp in the tub. I had no idea that was based on a real thing.

  5. Kat

    I am from the South and my husband is Mexican. We live in Mexico and our kids are 18 months old and we have a new born. (Congradulations on your own baby!)
    I love the big meal Christmas Eve with extended family and friends.
    My mom always does a late brunch Christmas day and thats a tradition I have tried to carry on with my own family.
    Here in Mexico our extended family doesnt exchange gifts. I love that! We didn’t give our son gifts last year. We choose instead to make their b-days special and about them.
    Both my husband and I come from Christian families, but neither one kept Advent. Its a tradition we have established with our own family.
    Its important to us to teach pur kids their heritage, but also make new traditions as our own little family.

  6. Breanne

    So fascinating!! I loved reading about the different customs both in the post and in all the comments. My husband and I are both Canadians but one of our most memorable Christmases was spent in New Zealand. They have a big bbq and pavlova and head to the beach since it’s the middle of their summer. =)

  7. Evelyn @ Smallish

    Loved this international take on celebrating the season! Hope baby comes soon 🙂

  8. Tanya

    Its so much fun to mix traditions. My husband didn’t have a lot of traditions from growing up so they are mostly from my side of the family,then we added some new ones. Carp sounds interesting..:)

  9. Jessica Brammer

    We are Americans living in Prague so it was easy to relate to the Czech traditions you mentioned that we see all around us this time of year. It’s great to take a little bit from a lot of places and make your own traditions.

  10. Emily

    i partially grew up in the czech republic, and one of my favorite christmas sights there were the HUGE vats of carp in old town square. most families bought their carp a few days before christmas and kept it alive in their bathtub til the big day; unfortunately, lots of the kiddos got to know the fish too well by then and it would get tossed back in the vltava river on christmas eve and a different one served for dinner. also, if you got the fish’s eye in your soup, you were ‘lucky’. another one that was fun was svati mikulas [saint nicholas] decorating the tree christmas eve while the other parent took the kids out for a walk. we haven’t adopted any of these traditions for our own family, but we do have lots of czech tree ornaments with stories behind them.
    thanks for sharing your traditions with us!

  11. Ellen W

    I’m wondering if Tom & Jerry’s are a Montana thing – I grew up in Nebraska and Texas and had never heard of them until I met my husband, a native Montanan. He tried making some a few years ago and they weren’t as good as he remembered.

  12. Kathryn

    I love learning about other countries’ Christmas customs! Thanks for sharing–this was so interesting. I married into an English family, so our Christmas is usually a mix of British and American customs. The Queen gives a speech each Christmas at 3 p.m. GMT; since we can’t watch it with our overseas family, we all light a red candle to remember each other at that time. We also eat British Christmas foods like roasted parsnips and bread sauce along with American foods like turkey and green bean casserole. The kids’ favorite British customs are the Christmas crackers (little firecracker-shaped goodie bags that pull open with a bang) and the flaming Christmas pudding. I’m really happy my daughter’s learning about her English heritage this way.

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