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Historical Czech Christmas traditions: Vánoční cukroví, lití olova

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Christmas worldwide conjures up the image of tables filled with sweets, desserts, and candies, and Christmas in the Czech Republic is no different. Vánoční cukroví, or translated to Christmas sweets, can be seen in all kinds of bakeshops and cafés throughout Prague, but the vast majority of Czech families bake their own at the beginning of December.

Every family makes their favorites, and there are too many variations of cookies to list. The most commonly seen are linecké, which are butter cookies sandwiched together with jam, preferably currant, or rybíz, flavored.

The short, dark days create a perfect environment for families to turn on their ovens for hours. Cold winter weather creates the perfect atmosphere; since most of the cookie dough contains butter, warm weather melts the dough too quickly and makes it impossible to cut it into its classic shapes. Not to mention, the cookies only get better with time, and they are regularly kept in cool places where they can soften. But why do we bake these cookies in the first place?

With roots that go back as far as the 16th century, Czech cukroví is an enduring tradition based on pagan beliefs and rituals. However, in that time, the Christmas cukroví was made out of fruit and shaped into figures for the children. Other baked goods were made, but with much more ceremonial purposes. Using flour from a person’s own crop meant that they would have a bountiful harvest the following year, and animal shapes intended to protect livestock. These cukroví were hung around the property to protect the family and create good fortune.

The 19th century had much more familiar cukroví, with old variations of the recipes we know now. Ingredients such as honey, butter, eggs, and cocoa were used in many recipes. However, expensive ingredients were still sparse for anyone who was not wealthy. It was not until after World War II that the general public could afford more expensive ingredients, and the modern Czech Christmas cookie came to be.

While it is difficult to spend almost any time in the Czech Republic at Christmas and not be a bit familiar with vánoční cukroví, some traditions are a little less prominent. One such tradition is lití olova, or lead pouring. Families come together to heat the metal, which has a low melting point, over the stove or a candle. Once it has melted, it is poured into cold water. The metal quickly hardens, creating shapes that are used to predict the upcoming year. Some shapes indicate good fortune, such as an umbrella, which can mean prosperity. Other shapes signal something ill-fated. One such symbol is a cat, which can mean there is jealousy in your future.

Anxiety about what the future will bring is not a mystery, but the origins of lead pouring in the Czech Republic is. Similar traditions of lead pouring exist in many neighboring countries such as Germany, and undoubtedly every country would like to claim they did it first. Even Turkey has traditions of lead pouring that is done to ward off evil spirits. However, the tradition of lead pouring may even go back to ancient Greece or the Celts.

Regardless of its exact history, fortune-telling and attempting to predict the upcoming year is a common theme in Czech Christmas traditions. Walnut boats in candles, cutting apples in half, and throwing a shoe are all traditional Czech attempts to predict the unknown. While pouring lead into water is simply a variation of this, it provides excitement about the year to come and plenty of familial arguing about what shape the lead really is. Regardless of what you decide, there is no concrete list of shapes and explanations. It is all up for interpretation, and as we learned this year, there truly is no way to predict the future!

If lití olova interests you, find an easy-to-use kit at the link below (no affiliation):

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Photo credit: Neven Krcmarek via Unsplash

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