Czechs don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Halloween or Valentine’s Day

A Prague tram with two flags, celebrating a Czech public holiday © Ricky Yates

A Prague tram with two flags, celebrating a Czech public holiday © Ricky Yates

This is a post that I’ve been compiling in my mind for quite some time. So with Valentine’s Day being less than two weeks away, the time has come to commit it to writing and the public domain.

The genesis of this post was seeing more than one comment on social media in late November, of American friends of Americans newly arrived here in Prague, actually asking, ‘Do Czechs celebrate Thanksgiving?’ Another, asking an American teacher in an international school here, whether he had the day off for Thanksgiving.

I do appreciate that these comments and questions, came from some of the approximately 60% of Americans who do not hold a passport and have therefore never set foot outside their own country. I did enjoy the response of another American teacher working here in Prague, when I mentioned these comments to her. She said that it made her ‘want to face-palm’ and that clearly those who asked ‘needed to go back to second-grade Social Studies classes’. As always, I was glad that was said by an American and not by me 😉

But I use this particular example to illustrate the important point that, if you choose to live and work in another country, you cannot expect the citizens of that country, to mark and celebrate the same things as are celebrated in your own nation.

This does not mean that if you move abroad, you cannot still celebrate festivals that are important to you. Staying with American Thanksgiving, I’ve twice had the privilege of being invited by an American woman married to a Czech man and living here, to a Thanksgiving meal she has laid on for her husband and their friends. Another American woman has told me that she does a similar thing and is grateful that finding the ingredients she wants for a Thanksgiving Dinner, is far easier now than it was when she first arrived in the Czech Republic, fifteen years earlier!

I must say that the Americans that I know living here in Prague, clearly were listening in their second-grade Social Studies classes and fully appreciate why Czechs do not celebrate Thanksgiving. But I do hear expressions of regret from both American and British expats living here, that there is very little marking of either Halloween or Valentine’s Day in the Czech Republic. For to most Czech people, both are seen as foreign imports and not part of Czech culture. And as far as I am concerned, long may that be the case.

As I’ve previously written on this blog, I have a serious aversion to the celebration of Halloween. Why do parents encourage their children to do silly things on 31st October each year, that they spend the other 364 days of the year, actively discouraging them from doing???? Quite honestly, the way Halloween is marked these days in both the USA and the UK, is more a celebration of that which is basically evil, rather than celebrating all that is good.

‘Halloween’, is a corruption of ‘All Hallows Eve’, ‘All Hallows Day’ being the archaic name of what is now known as ‘All Saints Day’ – 1st November. And despite the high level of agnosticism in the Czech Republic, the custom here over the period 31st October – 2nd November (All Souls Day), is to visit the graves of deceased relatives in order to lay flowers and light candles. To remember and give thanks, for ‘those we love but see no longer’.

Therefore in Czech supermarkets in October each year, rather than shelves of cheap Halloween tat, instead you will see shelves full of outdoor votive candles for sale. If in the evening in early November, you pass by a Czech cemetery, you will see a sea of flickering lights – quite an amazing and moving sight. Far preferable as far as I am concerned, to seeing children or adults dressed up in ugly costumes, seeking to frighten people.

In contrast to Halloween, I have no problem with couples using Valentine’s Day, as the occasion to celebrate their loving relationship. But it isn’t a Czech tradition and nor does it need to be. For Czech people already have a lovers day – 1st May. Particularly here in Prague, the tradition on the 1st May each year, is for couples to walk up Petrín Hill and declare their love for each other, standing under one of the many trees in blossom at that time. When you have such a tradition, why do you need another one?

However, the way Valentine’s Day is celebrated in the UK, is real bonus for hotels here in Prague. The period from early January to late March each year, is what I often refer to as the ‘non-tourist season’ – the opportunity to walk around the centre of the city without there being hordes of tourists. But with Valentine’s Day falling right in the middle of this period, offering a romantic weekend in Prague to British couples, is an excellent way to improve hotel occupancy rates during a lean period of the year 🙂

As an expat living here in the Czech Republic, I’m very happy to embrace Czech celebrations and culture. To experience something that is different, rather expecting everything to be the same and globalised. No – Czechs don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Halloween or Valentine’s Day. And my question always is, ‘Why on earth should they?’

24 comments to Czechs don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, Halloween or Valentine’s Day

  • Great post, Ricky! The holiday question is one that I’ve often dealt with back home. I tell everyone that Jiri and I have literally the best of both worlds. We celebrate both Czech and American holidays. In fact, on holidays such as Christmas, we blend American and Czech traditions quite easily. We also celebrate both Valentine’s Day and May 1st 🙂 Easter is the same way–combined traditions, aside from the Easter bunny.

    I have to say that May 1st has actually become my favorite, over Valentine’s Day. Each year we go to Petrín to kiss in front of Mácha’s statue, and then kiss again under a blooming cherry or apple tree. This is very romantic, especially when you’re married to a Czech who isn’t comfortable with public displays of affection (as many Czech’s aren’t).

    Celebrating both Czech and American holidays and traditions has helped Jiri and I to become more blended in our cross-culture marriage. The blending is a process of enrichment–one that I enjoy very much!

    • Ricky

      Thanks Sher! I also hope you recognised yourself in this post 😉

      I refrained from writing about Christmas & Easter because they are festivals that are celebrated here but in different ways to the USA or UK, as you rightly point out. I’ve also previously written about this here on my blog. But being an American married to a Czech, I think it’s great that you seek to celebrate both traditions within your marriage. And thanks for the mention of the Mácha statue which I forgot to include in what I originally wrote.

      • Yes, I recognized myself in the post–thanks for sharing about our Thanksgivings with you and Sybille! Celebrating Thanksgiving in Prague is easier than when I moved here 8 years ago! For one thing, it is easier to find certain ingredients now and I also have a few more gluten free options to choose from these days!

        Our Czech/American blended traditions have not only enriched Jiri and I, but have also touched my family back in the US! In fact, our family has Czech/Slovak heritage and being married to a “homeboy” has helped my American family better understand our roots in some ways.

        Všech Svatých (All Saints) is a beautiful holiday. Our Czech family gathers together each year to tend the graves, and then goes for an extended lunch all together. It’s a great way spend time together and remember those who have passed. On that night, the cemeteries are all beautifully lit with candles friends and loved ones have placed on the graves. There’s nothing creepy or terrifying–nothing of Halloween (which I also don’t like) or zombies, etc.

        Oh yes–you can’t forget Mácha! And guys should remember to kiss their girls under a blooming cherry (preferred) or apple tree. Czechs say that kissing your wife/girlfriend under a blooming cherry/apple tree will keep your girl from growing old…she will stay forever young. Well, I have to say I’m still getting older and showing signs of aging, but those kisses under the cherry and apple trees sure make me feel young! 🙂

        • Ricky

          Hi again, Sher! Many thanks for this follow-up comment, especially for your description of how your Czech family mark Všech Svatých (All Saints). With regard to your last paragraph, I have to say that like so many women these days, you hold your age very well. Now I know how you do it 🙂

  • Yes, but the Turkey! And the trimmings! This year I was lucky enough to experience Thanksgiving three times in Istanbul. It’s even better than at home, where it’s only once. I recently read an American expat’s blog about celebrating Thanksgiving among the Brits. She said, “be prepared, the Brits will not take you seriously when you go around the room and say what you’re thankful for.” That made me giggle. That’s the best part! Even better than the Turkey.

    • Ricky

      Yes Karen – I’ve heard of expat Americans here in Prague, enjoying more than one Thanksgiving Dinner, between the Thursday and Sunday of the Thanksgiving Weekend. As a Brit, I think being thankful for the many good things that we have, rather than moaning about those things we don’t have, is an excellent idea. On that point, I would most certainly take you seriously.

  • Sean Mccann

    Hi Ricky,
    A thought provoking post this one. We Irish bear some blame for the silly Americanisation of Hallowe’en which has given us ‘trick or treating’ and dressing up as monsters, ghosts, etc; and the latest ridiculous fad to hit Ireland in this regard – people decorating their houses for Hallowe’en! The ancient Irish (or Celtic) pagan festival of Samhain – celebrated on November first – marked the beginning of winter. The previous night was Óiche Shamhna – the night before Samhain – when the spirits of the dead were allowed to walk on the earth, to return to their homes and see their friends and families. It was regarded as a very dangerous night to leave your house and in fact most people left offerings of food and drink for their dead relatives and went to sleep as soon as darkness fell. Irish emigrants brought these superstitions and folk tales to the USA during and after the Great Famine and they became popular and were added to immensely and re-exported to Europe and the entire world! I think the Czechs have the correct idea for marking the All Saints/All Souls Day period, respectful and dignified remembrance of those gone before us. Thanks again Ricky.

    • Ricky

      Thank you Sean, for your excellent explanation of the Celtic origins of Halloween of which I knew, but not in as much detail as you have written here. I’m 100% with you in supporting the way most Czechs mark the All Saints/All Souls period – respectfully remembering those who have gone before us.

  • Allan

    Hi Ricky, although I read your blog whenever there’s a new post I seldom make comments however this time I felt there was one point that I would like to make.

    You wrote:

    “I do appreciate that these comments and questions, came from some of the approximately 60% of Americans who do not hold a passport and have therefore never set foot outside their own country. ”

    However this is not entirely true. I am not sure myself of the exact percentage but for Americans the lack of a passport does not mean they have never set foot outside their own country, just as the lack of a Czech passport does not mean the same for Czech citizens. I believe Americans can travel to places such as Puerto Rico, Guam, Palau, Marshall islands, US Virgin islands, American Samoa amongst others. I know these are all US territories or possessions of some status but they are not part of the USA. I do believe that Mexico and Canada were also until recently if not still open to non-passport carrying U.S citizens.

    Additionally I do not think the lack of a passport should be used to make a judgement on a persons knowledge of the world and of foreign customs. If I was American it is highly likely that I would not have visited the 100+ countries that I have visited since in my own country I would have access to pretty much a little piece of everything – ocean, sea, mountains, plains, swamp, desert, salt pans, big cities, small towns, great lakes, canyons, forests, plateau etc and in every place I would expect to meet interesting people with a very different experience of the country than my own.

    Just another point whilst I am here ? Being British I also have a stronger affinity to Guy Fawkes Night than Halloween and I must say it disappoints me that the commercial hype that surrounds Halloween has turned Guy Fawkes Night into a much more marginal celebration. However since that celebration is even more specific to my country I understand that Czechs don’t set fire to a effigy of Guy Fawkes.

    Valentines I’ve always found to be a really sincere celebration and I’ve just had a read of the origins of Valentines Day and to be honest it surprises me that you dismiss it Ricky, regardless of the presence of another “lovers” day in the Czech calendar, especially as it is not a celebration particularly specific to America.

    Thanksgiving though is a celebration I have tried to learn more about but the more I learn the less I feel I want to learn about it. It really is a celebration specific to some Americans and I do find it strange that anyone would expect it to be recognised, let alone celebrated, in any other country.

    • Ricky

      Hi Allan – Thanks for visiting & leaving this long & thoughtful comment.

      I did write ‘approximately 60% of Americans who do not hold a passport’ because my research produced varying figures. But certainly more than half of Americans do not hold one. Twenty or thirty years ago, only 10 – 20% of Americans held a passport, because they could travel to Canada & Mexico on a photo-card driving licence. That was stopped after 9/11.

      However, I fully accept the point you make about the USA being a very large country, with an amazing variety of geography and cultural differences between say, New England and the Mid-West, or California & Texas. To illustrate the relatively small size of the Czech Republic, I often point out that if I were to drive for no more than two & a half hours from Prague in a northerly, southerly or westerly direction, I would be in another country – Poland, Austria or Germany. A Texan member of my congregation told me that he would have to drive for twelve or thirteen hours from his former home in Texas, before he would arrive in the next state!

      I concur entirely with the sentiments you express in your third to last paragraph, how that in the UK, ‘the commercial hype that surrounds Halloween has turned Guy Fawkes Night into a much more marginal celebration’. And like you, I completely understand why Czechs don’t burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes because it is a British specific celebration.

      Regarding Valentine’s Day, it should of course be St.Valentine’s Day, celebrating the life and witness of Valentine, who was martyred for his faith in Rome c.269 AD. Likewise, I didn’t say that it was specific to the USA. It is widely marked, & taken full advantage of by card manufacturers & florists 🙂 , across the first language English-speaking world. But that is my point – it isn’t Czech. Whilst I’m sure many couples do ‘sincerely celebrate’ Valentine’s Day, I do prefer the Czech alternative on 1st May, very well explained by Sher in her earlier comment here.

      With regard to the last paragraph of your comment, what you write is exactly the point I was trying to make in the opening part of my blog post. Celebrating Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November, is USA country specific, so why should it be celebrated in any other country? But sadly, some Americans, (almost always ones who have never travelled outside the USA), do think that because they celebrate it, everybody else in the world does too. Similarly, only last night, I was in conversation with an American member of my congregation who has lived & worked in the Czech Republic for the past four & a half years. She told me that each year, she gets expressions of shock & surprise from friends in the USA, when she tells them that she has to work on the Fourth of July.

      • Martin Borýsek

        Following on Alan’s comment, I would also like to point out that many of the ca. 60% Americans who do not currently hold a valid passport would have held it in past (and simply decided not to renew it), so it is not accurate to assume automatically that they never left their country.
        I hesitated before pointing this out, but decided to do so, knowing that you are usually attentive to details and therefore likely to appreciate it in others 🙂

        • Ricky

          Thank you Martin – There obviously are Americans who have previously held a passport which is now expired & has not been renewed. But it will only be a very small percentage of the ca. 60% who do not currently hold one. And as pointed out in reply to Allan, many of the ca. 40% who do now hold a passport, only do so in order to visit Canada or Mexico.

          I do try to be attentive to detail & welcome it when anyone spots something that I’ve written is wrong & lets me know about it. I’m always happy to correct factual, grammatical & spelling errors & acknowledge it when I do get something wrong. So your comments are always welcome, Martin 🙂

  • David Hughes

    “she gets expressions of shock & surprise from friends in the USA, when she tells them that she has to work on the Fourth of July”

    Your American lady at least gets July 5th and 6th as compensation as long as they fall on a weekday. One good thing the Americans do that the Czechs don’t is making the Friday before or the Monday after July 4th a public holiday should Independence Day be on a Saturday or Sunday.

    Depending on her job, she could always ask for a day’s holiday on July 4th as well to save the nerves of her folks back home.

    Although it’s not quite the same as Hallowe’en, you could have made mention of carodejnice, or witch-burning night, on April 30th. I don’t know if it gets celebrated much in Prague but I’ve seen it in villages in South Bohemia and it’s quite an event. A huge bonfire and, naturally, lots and lots of beer.

    • Ricky

      David – the American lady does respond to her friends in the USA by saying that she gets the 5th & 6th July off work but then has to explain about St. Cyril & St. Methodius, along with Jan Hus 🙂

  • Tadeáš

    Hello Ricky, nice post “thumbs up”!:)

  • An enjoyable post, Ricky, and one with which I largely concur, though I do have a soft spot for St Valentine’s Day. 🙂 It can be interesting to hear and read comments by British residents in France about the differences in holidays and celebrations, some understanding and appreciative and others surprised or even shocked at the differences.
    PS Now that we live on the edge of the village we had our first experience of trick-or-treating last Halloween. 🙁 Guy Fawkes Night for me…

    • Ricky

      Very glad you enjoyed this post, Perpetua. With regard to St Valentine’s Day, I did write that ‘I have no problem with couples using Valentine’s Day, as the occasion to celebrate their loving relationship’. But also, that it isn’t a Czech tradition, although there are commercial interests that are trying to make it one.

      Most interesting to hear about the way British residents of France respond to the difference in public holidays. Sadly, there are some Brits who think that because we celebrate something, everybody else should, a reaction & lack of thinking that saddens me deeply.

      Last year, I happened to be in England on 31st October. That evening, I was enjoying a drink and a meal in a pub in Nottingham with my son Phillip, his girlfriend Lisa & a mutual friend of theirs. Around to our table came a child with mother behind her, totally unknown to any of us, trying to play trick-or-treat. I’m afraid we gave the child & her mother, fairly short shrift. It was unwanted & inappropriate. I’m very much with you & Allan in his earlier comment, of celebrating Guy Fawkes Night on or around 5th November, rather than Halloween.

  • Em

    I concur with Sher that it’s lovely celebrating both American holidays here as expats AND Czech holidays with Czech friends. Don’t be too hard on the new Americans; perhaps they asked because of what they see; Westernization has resulted in American holiday displays at Tesco and advertisements of special American holiday meals in central Prague, etc. Also, some international schools do not hold classes on foreign holidays, depending on the makeup of the staff/student body. (Although, to be honest, I’ve never heard of any in Prague giving Thanksgiving off.) And I do know many of those Americans who have never ventured beyond North America’s borders – my own father probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for me living here. The high cost of flights, coupled with scant vacation time, makes staying in the US a much more realistic holiday for many. I grew up camping all over the Midwest and it was great!

    That being said, I love your insistence that we celebrate all that is good rather than all that is evil. The Czechs definitely have it right on All Saints’ Day! And the idea of gorging on candy on Halloween is a poisonous practice, considering the obesity epidemic and other health issues in America. However, you’re the most unpopular person on the block if you try to hand out apples or peanuts 🙂

    • Ricky

      Indeed Em – I’m all for couples in cross cultural marriages, celebrating both of their cultural traditions, and for expats living here, getting together in order to celebrate their own national holidays, such as groups of Americans organising a shared Thanksgiving Dinner.

      I wasn’t being hard on newly arrived Americans, but on their US based friends. For sure, there are Prague restaurants wanting to make money by offering a Thanksgiving Dinner to try and attract some American customers. Just as there are hotels offering Valentine’s weekends to British couples to improve hotel occupancy in the non-tourist season.

      I wasn’t aware of any International School here that gave any other holidays other than Czech public holidays. The way to get the best of both worlds is to work for an embassy. Both the British & American embassies are shut on Czech public holidays & on the public holidays of either the UK or the USA.

      I am aware of the issue of what you describe as ‘scant vacation time’ for many Americans. Along with the lack of public health care for all, and vocal opposition to attempts to provide it, they are two aspects of the USA that I & most Europeans find difficult to comprehend.

      Thank you Em, for your support in the last paragraph of your comment. All Saints/All Souls should be about giving thanks for those who have gone before us & remembering all that was good in their lives. I do think that Czechs have got it right! Again, I’m glad that it is you & not me commenting about American obesity, though I hate to say it but the UK is heading in a similar direction.

  • Em

    (I do still stand by my words, though.) 😉

  • And may I just add that my first Thanksgiving abroad was with Sher and her husband and it was glorious! Thank you again, Sher!