11th November in the Czech Republic

First World War memorial in Zbraslav © Ricky Yates

First World War memorial in Zbraslav © Ricky Yates

Today is Armistice Day, marking the signing of the armistice, ninety-eight years ago, which brought an end to the First World War at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. In the USA, it is known as Veterans Day and is kept as a public holiday.

During the First World War, what is now the Czech Republic was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which, together with Germany and the Ottoman Empire, formed the eventually defeated Central Powers. The Czechs were a subjugated people, increasingly seeking much greater autonomy or self-rule. As I explained in my previous post, two weeks before the official end of WW1, the independent new nation state of Czechoslovakia was proclaimed.

Yet despite the rise of Czech nationalism, many Czech people fought and died for an Empire that they didn’t really believe in. In many towns and cities across the country, there are memorials such as this one in Zbraslav, to those who gave their lives in the First World War.

Today is also St Martin’s Day, the Feast Day of St. Martin of Tours. As a fourth century Roman soldier, Martin is said to have cut his military cloak in two and given one half to a scantily clad beggar outside the city of Amiens, to protect him from the freezing weather. Later, after leaving the army, Martin became a monk and hermit, before being made Bishop of Tours in 371.

Here in the Czech Republic, there are numerous traditions associated with St Martin’s Day. There is a Czech saying, ‘Martin prijíždí na bílém koni‘ – ‘Martin is coming on a white horse’, indicating that today is when the first snowfall can be expected. This year in the Czech Republic, Martin came quite early with the first snowfall on the higher mountains some two weeks ago. Even here in Prague, we had our first dusting of snow, twenty-four hours before St. Martin’s Eve.

St Martin = wine & goose :-) © Ricky Yates

St Martin = wine & goose 🙂 © Ricky Yates

Many restaurants offer a St Martin’s special menu which always features roast goose. According to tradition, the association of a goose with St Martin is because he was so reluctant to be ordained a bishop, that he hid in a goose pen, only for his hiding place to be given away, by the cackling of the geese.

The appropriate accompaniment to St Martin’s goose is Svatomartinské vino, a young wine from the recent harvest. This is produced in the vineyards of South Moravia and always becomes available for the first time on 11th November each year. In more recent times it has been marketed in a big way in a similar manner to Beaujolais nouveau.

All that I describe here are examples of the keeping of traditions which are Christian in origin by a now rather irreligious Czech population. The Epiphany door-marking illustrated at the end of this post and referred to in following comments falls into the same category.

10 comments to 11th November in the Czech Republic

  • Sean Mccann

    Hi Ricky,
    Thank you for another interesting post. ‘Cultural Christianity’ seems to be surviving in many places where actual practice of any organised Christian faith is faltering – perhaps there is hope that from the half remembered practices and feast days the faith can be resurrected and renewed.

    Regarding Czech remembrance of World War One, their declaration of independence and subsequent events it is interesting to recall the ‘Czech Legions’ formed in Russia from prisoners of war captured from the Austro-Hungarian Army who went on to play a large part in the Russian Civil War serving on either or both sides at different times many of whom died in Russia and some of whom fought their way east to Vladivostok and returned to Czechoslovakia via Canada and western Europe. One of their number was Jaroslav Hasek who found posthumous fame as the author of ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’.

    • Ricky

      Hi Sean – You are quite right; ‘Cultural Christianity’ is still alive and well, despite the virtual absence of Christian practice. And I do believe that by educating people about the Christian origins of things that are now seen purely as ‘cultural’, there is an opportunity to draw people back to genuine Christian faith.

      Thank you for the second half of your comment. I very nearly did include a reference to Hasek & ‘The Good Soldier Svejk’, as a being an example of the ambivalence of many Czechs who fought in WW1.

  • Dear Ricky!
    As usual you are the most dependable source of historical knowledge I have ever known. Apart from this obvious remark I must say that the state of things concerning Christian practise and knowledge of the faith most people still feel related to in our country, is a sad state. Somehow things tend to slip out of mind and in church we are getting more and more reluctant to be clear and truthful. We are afraid to be seen as blunt or even harsh!! People however tend to ask what the purpose is of everything, why they feel lost and bewildered in the darkness of the world and how you can prevent evil from bringing you down completely. In the other room, many keep asking how people can be so mean and evil, why are things going so bad, why is violence rising, why greed, why hatred?? Oh yes, we need to speak out and take care of peoples deepest needs and worries. We need to go back to the firm foundation of our lives. Trump or no Trump, the truth is that in the end, even he will stand defeated. Goodness, light and life will prevail. I’d like to see St Martin as a very true sign of that!!

    • Ricky

      Oh Solveig! My head won’t fit through the door if you keep giving me compliments like that in your first sentence 😀 But thank you for your kind words! But I do concur very much with your last two sentences – ‘Goodness, light and life will prevail. I’d like to see St Martin as a very true sign of that!!’

      On a technical note, do remember to put ‘.se’ or ‘.com’ on the end of the web address of your own blog, otherwise the link won’t work. I’ve edited it for you this time. I previously went back through other of your comments doing the same thing after I clicked on a link & found that it didn’t take me to your blog.

  • Will that do?? I didn’t write that website address myself, must be some malevolent ghostwriter!!!
    Blessings to you!!! Would be nice to hear about advent and christmas in the Czech Republic!

  • I love that Advent ring!! We have an ordinary, but rather large candlestick in our churches. In the church where my husband works, they have an Advent pine tree with real candles, so it has to be properly taken care of. It’s really beautiful. I enjoyed your posts on Advent and Christmas, Ricky!! I strikes me that there are more services being celebrated in your church tradition than in ours, especially the Eucharist!! However, we do the most we can of it, and right now the choirs are very much active and then we have the Lucia… Blessings to you!

    • Ricky

      Thank you Solveig – I’m glad you enjoyed the Advent posts to which I linked in reply to your previous comment. I still do hope to write and publish an Advent post shortly, as I previously promised.

  • Em

    Hi Ricky,

    I had forgotten that St. Martin’s was nigh until I had visitors in town and tried to make a restaurant reservation – and all of our favorites were plumb full! I am also continuously surprised by how many Christian traditions are celebrated at length in this very atheist country.

    A large part of Czech WWI history that I’ve learned about since moving here is the Czechoslovak Legion – what a fascinating story.

    • Ricky

      Hi Em – thank you for visiting & commenting once again. Sorry to hear that you got caught out but I knew from past experience how many restaurants would make a big deal of St Martin with his feast day falling on a Friday, making the perfect three-day weekend on which to have special offers & Svatomartinské vino. I share your surprise as to how many traditions with Christian origins, live on here, despite the general agnosticism/atheism.

      Regarding you second paragraph, see a long comment on my previous post.