Here at the Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages, we organise and run a range of open days for prospective students and their parents and guardians. Open days are one of the best ways to get a real feel for a University, helping students to make informed decisions about their futures.
Over the course of February and March, we will be holding our language-specific open days, designed to provide greater insight into our undergraduate degree programmes. In comparison to our wider open day in May, language-specific open days are smaller and more focused in their scope, allowing more time to explore a subject in depth.
For example, the German open day offers an introduction to German film, linguistics, and different types of literature. On the Spanish and Portuguese open day, you can explore medieval Iberian literature and learn Portuguese in 15 minutes. The Italian open day will introduce you to Italian literature’s biggest names from the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods.
So, if you’re thinking about applying to study languages at Oxford, or want to find out more about a particular course, these open days offer a wonderful opportunity to meet some of our tutors and current students, come along to academic taster sessions which will give you a flavour of what it’s like to study languages, and ask lots of questions.
Below are the details of our 2022 language specific open days. You will need to book a place at these events, which you can do via our open daywebsite, where you will also find the event programmes.
German: Saturday 19th February, 11am – 3pm, Microsoft Teams
Spanish & Portuguese: Friday 25th February, 10am-3pm, St Anne’s College
Italian: Saturday 5th March, 11am-1.30pm, Microsoft Teams
Russian and Slavonic Languages: Saturday 5th March, further details to be published soon.
You may have noticed that there is no specific open day for French: students interested in French should attend the Faculty’s main open day in May or one of the University open days in July or September. Keep your eyes peeled for more information about those events in future blog posts.
We look forward to having you along to our language-specific open days – don’t forget to book your place!
While you’re here: a reminder that applications to our 2022UNIQ programme are still open! You can read more about this fantastic opportunity for UK state school students in last week’s blog post, or head to the websitefor further information.
Seldom does a literary epoch, philosophical movement, or aesthetic proposition divide readers as much as Romanticism. And no matter what we do or study, when our preferences and affinities with Romanticism are at stake, they tend to be an either/or option. When we think about the end of the eighteenth century, we are likely to recall (in tranquillity or not) the well-known image of a wanderer above the sea of fog from Caspar David Friedrich’s 1818 painting or one of J. M. W. Turner’s atmospheric landscape or marine paintings.
We are quick to talk about it all in bullet points: ‘extreme individualism’, ‘introspection over objectivity’, ‘return of the irrational and fantastical’, ‘poetical genius and inspiration’, ‘escapism’, ‘renewal of oral and folklore tradition’. The list goes on. Nevertheless, characterising the whole literary epoch by extrapolating from several, albeit influential, artworks or reading salient poems does not give a full picture. Ranging from the emotional unrest of the early Sturm und Drang movement in Germany; through the huge impact French Revolution had on all European art, to the metaphysical conundrums of the Russian poet and writer Alexander Pushkin, Romanticism is far from monolithic.
In England, the words that are often invoked to describe romantic principles are these of William Wordsworth from Lyrical Ballads (1798). Poetry, for him, is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ that ‘takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ . Years later, in his seminal 1919 essay about the representation of feelings in modern verse, modernist poet T. S. Eliot would attack a long-dead Wordsworth by opposing an idealistic romanticism of tranquillity and modern unrest . The Wordsworthian idea from The Prelude was indeed romantic. And here, we may use ‘romantic’ in its adjectival and colloquial sense that indicates — to follow OED — a certain quixotism, sentimentality, naivety, or idealism.
If Wordsworth saw the historical moment as ‘a glorious time’ full of the ‘events / Of that great change’, others had reasons to be less optimistic. The roots and ambitions of Romanticism differ from country to country. By this logic, only by exploring paths ‘less travelled by’ – to follow Robert Frost’s ironically mainstream line – can we widen our understanding of the period and maybe even challenge the myths surrounding ‘unified’ Romantic sensibility and so-called ‘organic form’?
The glory of honourable defeats
Romanticism might well be glorious in the grandiosity of its poetic aspirations but – in Polish literature – it was far from tranquil. After the subsequent partitions (1772, 1793, 1795) of Poland between neighbouring Russia, Austria, and Prussia the country was totally swindled and spend 123 years under occupation. So, formally, there was no country, and Poland was erased from the maps of Europe. The suggestively entitled painting Rejtan, or the Fall of Poland by acclaimed artist Jan Matejko depicts Partition Sejm in 1773 and Rejtan’s (the character on the right bottom corner) dramatic protest against it.
When twenty-year-old Matejko finished Rejtan in 1866, the painting gave rise to heated debate. With the still-fresh memory of the failed January Uprising (1863) hanging heavily in the air, the young painter decided to criticise the elites and their responsibility for Poland’s tragic political situation. Cyprian Kamil Norwid — a late-romantic poet — would, for instance, criticise the painting, saying that ‘Rejtan is a demon with a moustache’. The daunting situation had a lasting impact on the culture and even the current national anthem, composed in 1797, opens with the line: ‘Poland has not yet perished / So long as we still live’. Given the genre, ‘not the most optimistic or conventional opening’ — as one of my undergraduate students aptly observed.
One of the many problems with Polish romanticism is its self-perceived seriousness, its idealised self-image, its lack of critical detachment. All of these continue to impact today’s perception of national symbols that are too often prone to political manipulations. The prominent critic and scholar Maria Janion thought about these issues diagnosing, after 1989, the end of the Romantic paradigm. Still, if transformation brought Poland a free market, rapid economic development, and international mobility; ‘how would Poles define themselves when they had nothing to fight bravely against?’ 
Even if Polish writers shared and borrowed from all European traditions, the role ascribed to literature differed from its Western counterparts . The poet was treated like a prophet, soothsayer or bard while poetry was read seriously and in the hope that it would have some causative power. It is common to refer to the well-known trio of Polish romantic poets – Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński – as wieszcze narodowi, meaning ‘The Three Bards’.
Literature fights against oppression
Still, the oddest idea developed by Polish romanticism was ‘Poland as a Christ of Nations’ that made Roman Catholic Christianity a distinctive part of its cultural heritage. The canonical literary works of the time drew a parallel between Poland’s suffering and the suffering of Christ. This messianism was therefore used by Poles in their fight for eventually re-gaining independence in 1918.
In his late and unfinished poetic drama Forefather’s Eve, Mickiewicz would fortify this tradition. His hero, Gustav, is a typically self-absorbed romantic lover. Here, however, Gustav transforms into Konrad, who is determined to fight against oppression. Notice how the symbolic death and rebirth of the hero is represented graphically, as if alluding to the ancient genre of epitaph so the text that is inscribed on a tombstone or plaque.
Ironically, the title of Mickiewicz’s drama, Dziady, which established the idea of ‘Poland as a Christ of Nations’ comes from nothing other than… a Slavic pagan ritual! The ritual of dziady was a feast of commemoration of the dead now celebrated mostly, if not only, in Belarus. It also made it into the game based on Andrzej Sapkowski’s saga, The Witcher 3 where one of the quests is to meet the master of the ceremony and help villagers in addressing incoming souls.
Well-educated, well-read, having lived abroad, and determined to address ‘Young Friends’ who are ‘Strong in unison, reasoned in rage’, the great rivals Mickiewicz and Słowacki began their work with youthful enthusiasm. They set their youthful energy and rebellion against the inertia of their elders. Sometimes, like in my favourite romantic poem My Testament by Słowacki, both patriotism and youthful determination intertwined. Think, for instance, about the following passage. Now, you may even recognise Slowacki’s allusion to the forefather’s eve ritual.
But you that knew me well, in your reports convey
That all my younger years were for my country spent:
While battle raged, at mast I stood, be as it may,
And with the ship I drowned when vanquished down she went.
Oh that my friends at night together gathered be,
And this sad heart of mine in leaves of aloe burn!
And give it then to her who’s given it to me.
Thus mothers are repaid: with ashes in the urn.
Oh that my friends around a goblet sit once more,
And drink unto my funeral and their poor lot.
Be I a ghost, I will appear and join them or —
If God may spare me pain and torture — I shall not.
But I beseech you — there is hope while there is breath.
Do lead the nation with a wisdom’s torch held high,
And one by one, if needed be, go straight to death,
As God-hurled stones that densely over ramparts fly. 
The last stanza of the excerpt exemplifies how Slowacki urges his friends to sacrifice their lives in the fight for freedom. Moreover, years later, in 1943, Aleksander Kaminski would use Slowacki’s words for the title of his book Stones for the Rampart. Through the book we, yet again, see how authors echo the romantic vision of sacrifice as the story follows a group of young friends whose hopes, dreams, and joys of their early twenties are interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the failure of the Warsaw Uprising. In his war movie Warsaw 1944 (available on Netflix) Polish director Jan Komasa borrows from romantic imagery, ideals, and myths. The English trailer gives a sense of this post-romantic symbolism.
The urgency of longing
Sometimes poets would evoke political messages less directly, for instance, by adopting a nostalgic tone. One of the most well-known lines of Polish Romanticism comes from the epic poem Pan Tadeusz, written by Mickiewicz and published in Paris in 1834. The most recent English translation of the book – by the acclaimed translator and former Oxford student, Bill Johnson – is brilliant and gives the poem the freshness and dynamism that canonical works every so often lack if read within their own cultural circle. 
The epic, like all epics, begins in a serious, high-style tone that does justice to the author’s yearning for the missed Fatherland:
Lithuania! My homeland! You are health alone.
Your worth can only ever be known by one
Who’s lost you. Today I see and tell anew
Your lovely beauty, as I long for you.
The epic has the subtitle ‘The Last Foray in Lithuania’. Across twelve books, all written in the unique metre of the Polish alexandrine, Mickiewicz tells the feel-good, nostalgic story of the eponymous Sir Tadeusz. He is a young man from an upper class of nobility who returns from his studies abroad to an idyllic Soplicowo. In a way, the character of young Tadeusz enables Mickiewicz, as an author, to express his personal longing.
[…] Meanwhile, transport my yearning soul
Back to those wooded hills, those meadows wide
And green, that line the pale blue Niemen’s side;
Those fields adorned with many-colored grain
Where golden wheat and silvery rye both shine,
Where clover with its maidenly red blush,
White duck wheat, and amber rapeseed all grow lush,
Ribboned round by a green field boundary where
A tranquil pear tree nestles here and there.
Even if the scenery is indeed tranquil, the reader knows the backstory that makes such an idyllic description of nature into something more complex, and ambivalent, filled with juxtapositions that are not obvious at the first glance.
Full of national traditions, subtleties, and idiosyncrasies, much of Polish romantic poetry, epic, and drama was written against the grain of failed uprisings, buried hopes, tragic defeats, and longing for a lost fatherland as expressed by émigré writers. The well-known historian of Eastern Europe, Norman Davies, observed that the Polish political microclimate allowed ‘myths to flourish’. And since myths are known to have broad applications and functions, it is now fascinating yet dramatic to observe how the romantic ideas strongly embedded within Polish culture have or have not been used.
 More about the leading ideas and forms of European Romanticism can be found in a comprehensive book by Nicholas Roe, Romanticism: An Oxford Guide. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
 See the article by Stanley Bill in Being Poland : A New History of Polish Literature and Culture since 1918 ed. Czaplinski, P., Nizynska, J., Polakowska, A., & Trojanowska, T. (2019). Toronto, 2019.
Recently we held an online open day for potential applicants interested in studying Russian and other Slavonic languages here at the University of Oxford. If you were unable to attend but would like to know more, we are delighted to share a playlist of videos with more information about our undergraduate courses. You can view the videos on our YouTube channel here.
Oxford is one of the few British universities where Polish can be studied to degree level. For more information, see here. Application is open to beginners as well as existing speakers of Polish, including those with Polish A-levels. Polish language and literature are also available as optional subjects to students of Modern Languages other than Polish, notably Russian and Czech, as well as to undergraduates in Linguistics.
If Polish piques your curiosity, you might like to begin exploring literature written in Polish. This post originally appeared on the Taylor Institution Library’s blog, as part of a lecture series on ‘Literatures of Multilingual Europe.’ Here, Dr Kasia Szymańska gives us an insight into Polish literature in a piece written to accompany the webinar of her lecture.We are grateful to the Taylor Library and Joanne Ferrari for allowing us to reblog this post here.
You can view the webinar of Kasia’s lecture by clicking the image below or following this link.
The lecture series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, most of which took place in the course of Michaelmas (autumn term) 2018 came at a very significant time. As we were giving our talks at the Taylorian, we could hear the almost imperceptible sound of the Brexit time-bomb ticking towards its final countdown like the calm before the storm. How ironic to introduce ‘lesser-known’ European literatures such as Scandinavian, Irish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Modern Greek, and Yiddish to -our English-speaking audience at a time when we could not even take an interest in the more mainstream ones for granted? This thought kept nagging away at the back of my mind as we discussed the rather flimsy position of translated literature in the UK and the US during our introductory panel.
2018 was a particularly successful year for Polish literature and film in the UK. The Man Booker International Prize was awarded to Polish contemporary writer (and later the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature) Olga Tokarczuk and her American translator Jennifer Croft for Flights (Fitzcarraldo). This happened only the year after yet another Polish author, Wioletta Greg (based in the UK), made it onto the longlist alongside her translator Eliza Marciniak for Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books). In 2019, Tokarczuk was shortlisted again with her other translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo). Some might call it a literary hat-trick, others might see it as a positive trend for the British reception of Polish works. In other news relating to the visual arts in 2018, the UK-based and Oxford-educated Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, known for his previously Academy-awarded Ida (2014), created another black-and-white masterpiece entitled Cold War. The film earned him the Best Director prize in Cannes and three nominations for the Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film.
However, it is very difficult to bring the two divergent worlds together, when there is so little academic interest in Polish literature and culture. Whilst the study of the history, economy, and politics of the country is also crucial, elevating and re-evaluating the status of Poland’s vibrant literary and cultural activity across the centuries might be a more promising way of changing the way it is perceived ‘under Western eyes’. This was partly the intention of the introductory talk which I gave for the series. In addition to serving as a taster of a lesser-known literature and highlighting the Bodleian and Taylorian’s collection, the talk was meant to condense the long rich history of a literature which represents Britain’s ‘invisible minority’. This literature perhaps remains overshadowed by the stereotyped view of a community which is thought of as just another Eastern European country supplying the UK with skilled manual labour.
2018 was also symbolic for another reason: it marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after more than a century of being partitioned between three empires (those of Prussia, Austria, and Russia). These partitions took place at the end of the eighteenth century, after hundreds of years of a prosperous Kingdom of Poland and later a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and exerted a stranglehold over Polish life and culture throughout most of the nineteenth century up until 1918. It is towards the end of this tumultuous period interspersed with failed uprisings and frustration that anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski and writer Joseph Conrad (or more accurately: Józef Konrad Korzeniowski) arrived in London at the heart of the British Empire. It is also half way through this period, in 1850, that the Bodleian Library purchased a large collection of early Polish books known as Libri polonici (see Stone 2005), which would become one of the major collections of the kind in the West. This repository includes less than two thousand items such as printings of sixteenth-century literature, a unique copy of the first Polish newspaper dating back to 1557 and material related to Polish Arianism in the age of Reformation.
years later, in 1865, the Earl of Ilchester, a friend of the Polish
prince and statesman Adam Czartoryski, endowed the University of Oxford
with a substantial sum to encourage ‘the study of the Polish and other
Slavonic languages, Literature, and History’. He made it explicit in his
will that priority should be given to Polish over any other Slavonic
language. However, most likely following the advice of an amateur
philologist, Lord Strangford, Convocation breached the agreement.
Instead, the University funded the study of Russian, the language of one
of Poland’s imperial occupiers at that time (see: Stone 2005).
Taking this backstory into account, there are few places where the
celebration of Poland’s regained independence from imperial forces could
have been felt more powerfully so many years later than here in
When preparing for the talk and asking
our Library Subject Specialist Nick Hearn for books to be displayed, I
came to realize that the collections of both the Bodleian and the
Taylorian were far more diverse and rich in Polish sources than I could
ever have foreseen. As part of Libri polonici, the Weston
Library holds quite a number of early seventeenth-century printings of
the work of Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski (1530–84), including
his cantos, epigrams (fraszki), threnodies (treny), and elegies, both in Polish or Latin. In my talk, I introduced his cycle of threnodies or lamentations entitled Treny
from 1580, movingly rendered into English by Seamus Heaney and
Stanisław Barańczak, among others. In particular, I briefly discussed
Kochanowski’s ‘Lament 7’:
The holdings of the Taylor Institution library were in particular a great surprise to me. As part of the series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, we hosted Professor Bill Johnston from Indiana University. Bill returned to Oxford after decades (he read Modern Languages at University College in the early 1980s) to read from his newly released Guggenheim-funded translation of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Originally published in Paris in 1834, Pan Tadeusz [Master Thaddeus] comprises twelve books in verse and is sometimes considered the last great epic poem in European literature as well as the Polish national epic. How excited we were to see that the Taylorian was actually in possession of the first edition!
With their worn-out edges and dog-eared pages, library holdings like this one contain whole different universes and bygone worlds, which have sadly sunk into oblivion and remain unexplored. They could almost stand for the “empty frames” in the hall of mirrors from this passage in Bill’s translation of Pan Tadeusz (p. 52):
These memories had clearly left him pained,
He wished them gone. Upstairs they came at last
To a great room that had been in the past
A hall of mirrors; now all you could see
Were empty frames and windows. A gallery
Overlooked the gate. Gerwazy hid his eyes
In his cupped hands, head bowed in thought. His gaze,
When he looked up, showed grief and hopelessness.
Dusting off some of Bodleian and Taylorian’s impressive holdings and revisiting their stories seemed like giving them a new lease of life. To speak about them to the Oxford public was an act of filling these empty frames again with some colours and reflected images. Perhaps, some other generation of readers, students, and scholars will also come to look into all these mirrors, and hopefully, they will find and recognise themselves in their reflections, too.
Dr Kasia Szymańska
Former Junior Research Fellow in ML, Oxford; Thomas Brown Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin.
Polish literature bibliography
Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855 : selected poems, editor: Clark Mills (et al.) New York: Noonday Press, 1956
Foer, Jonathan Tree of codes London: Visual editions, 2010
Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Kraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 2010
Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Translated by E. Mosbacher, London, 1965
Greg, Wioletta Swallowing mercury Translated by Eliza Marciniak London: Portobello books, 2017
Kochanowski, Jan Laments Translated by Seamus Heaney and Stanisław Barańczak,
Kochanowski, Jan Treny Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1986
Krasicki, Ignacy Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki Warszawa: Książka, 1947
Krasicki, Ignacy The adventures of Mr Nicholas Wisdom Translated by Thomas Hoisington Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992
Krasicki, Ignacy Monachomachia ; Antymonachomachia Warszawa : Książka i Wiedza, 1988
Krasicki, Ignacy Myszeidos pieśni X Wrocław : Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1986
Lem, Stanislaw Solaris Warsaw: Agora, 2008
Mickiewicz, Adam Ballady i romanse Lipsk, 1852
Mickiewicz, Adam Forefather’s Eve Translated by Count Potocki of Montalk London: Polish cultural foundation, 1968
Mickiewicz, Adam Dziady Wrocław, 1864
Mickiewicz, Adam Pan Tadeusz, or, The last foray in Lithuania: a story of the gentry from 1811 and 1812: comprising twelve books in verse Translated by Bill Johnston New York: First Archipelago Books edition, 2018
Mickiewicz, Adam Pan Tadeusz, czyli, Ostatni zajazd na Litwie : historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812, we dwunastu ksiegach, wierszem Paris, 1834
Miłosz, Czesław The History of Polish Literature Berkeley : University of California Press, 1983
Peterkiewicz, Jerzy, Five centuries of Polish poetry, 1450-1950; an anthology London: Secker & Warburg, 1960
Prus, Boleslaw The doll Translated by David Welsh New York: New York Review, 2011
Prus, Boleslaw Lalka: powieść w trzech tomach Warsaw: PIW, 1972
Schulz, Bruno The street of crocodiles London: Pan books, 1980
Schulz, Bruno Sklepy cynamonowe ; Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą Translated by Celina WieniewskaKraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 1994
Tokarczuk, Olga Flights Translated by Jennifer Croft London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018
The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) is a thriving hub of activities bringing together our community of scholars – students and tutors alike – across subjects within the humanities. One of their regular events is the ‘Book at Lunchtime’ series, which is usually a discussion of a recent publication by an academic from Oxford. On today’s blog, we’re featuring the Book at Lunchtime episode starring our very own Polly Jones, Associate Professor of Russian at University College. Prof. Jones discusses her book Revolution Rekindled. The Writers and Readers of Late Soviet Biography with Professor Ann Jefferson, Dr Katherine Lebow, and Professor Stephen Lovell.
Polly Jones offers the first ever archival and oral history study of Brezhnev-era publishing and propaganda production, highlighting the consistent pressure throughout late socialism to find new forms of propaganda and inspiring ‘revolutionary’ narratives, and challenges the widespread idea that these became ‘standardised’ and ‘stagnant’ soon after Stalin’s death. Jones reveals the vitality and popularity of late Soviet culture, especially biography and historical fiction. She emphasises that both writers and readers found in late Soviet ‘official’ publishing opportunities to reflect on complex questions of Russian and Soviet history and identity and employs extensive new archival material, and oral history interviews with some of the leading literary and cultural figures of the Brezhnev era.
A couple of weeks ago, we posted about our upcoming German open day, a chance for you to learn about the German course at Oxford. This week, we continue the theme by bringing you news of our open days in Spanish and Portuguese (Thursday 28 February at The Queen’s College), and Russian and other Slavonic Languages (Saturday 2 March at Wadham College).
As with the German open day, these events are a fantastic opportunity for you to explore what an Oxford degree in those languages looks like. They offer a mixture of academic tasters so you can get a feel for the content of the degree, information about applying to Oxford, and interactions with tutors and current students, who will be happy to answer any questions you have about languages at Oxford.
Highlights of the Spanish and Portuguese open day include: an introduction to Portuguese in 15 minutes, an introduction to other peninsular languages (Catalan and Galician – for more on Galician, see our post here); a spotlight on Portuguese-speaking Africa; and a Spanish Translation workshop.
Highlights of the open day in Russian and other Slavonic Languages include: a mini lecture on ‘Home from home: Russian writers in interwar Paris’; a mini lecture on ‘Russian Grammar in Time and Space’; and a parallel discussion for parents and teachers.
The open days are open to anyone in Year 12 who is interested in studying those languages at Oxford, including if you are interested in picking up the language from scratch (with the exception of Spanish, which we do not offer from scratch). Sessions will be suitable for learners who have no prior knowledge of the language, as well as those hoping to apply post-A Level. There are a limited number of places for accompanying parents and teachers. The events are free of charge but a place must be booked through the faculty’s website.
The full programmes are below, or available to view at https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/schools/meet-us
This post was written by Dr James Partridge, Teaching Fellow in Czech (with Slovak) at Oxford. Here, James tells us about Christmas in the Czech Republic.
My first Christmas in the Czech Republic was back in 1993, when I was still an undergraduate, 3 months into my year abroad in Brno. Christmas customs, though, are usually measured in decades and centuries, so 25 years later my Czech students at Oxford on their years abroad will still see most of the same things I did.
Much of the run up to Christmas (Vánoce) will be familiar to anyone from the UK: packed shops, panic buying, mildly disappointing Christmas markets. Early in December, though, the first Czech Christmas ritual begins: the baking of cukroví – Christmas biscuits. There are many different kinds of cukroví, and most are usually quick and easy to make, but they are made in large quantities. Most families take great pride in baking their own cukroví and have their own favourite recipes, often handed down through the generations. Vanilkové rohličky (vanilla rolls) are made from a simple dough of butter, flour, sugar, egg yolk, a little vanilla sugar, perhaps some ground nuts, pressed into moulds and baked quickly. Medvědí tlapičky (‘bears’ paws’) are made from a similar dough, but flavoured with cocoa. Colourfully decorated gingerbreads are also very popular, and some cukroví such as kokosové kuličky (coconut balls) aren’t baked at all. However you make them, the idea is to make as many as possible so that there will always be a selection available for family and guests for the whole Christmas period, if they last that long.
Christmas day itself (Štědrý den, literally ‘Generous / Bountiful day’) is on December 24th. In the past, Štědrý den was a day of fast and people would eat nothing (or very little) until the evening. In the middle ages, the custom was not to eat meat during the day, but something plain like barley groats with mushrooms. Those who honoured this custom faithfully were rewarded by seeing a vision of a zlaté prasátko (golden pig) in the early evening. Traditionally, the pig is a symbol of abundance and prosperity, and gold represented the passing of the winter solstice, however people nowadays usually just tell their children that you see the golden pig because you are so hungry by sunset that you start hallucinating.
Once you’ve seen the golden pig it’s time to sit down to Christmas dinner and eat until you can eat no more, and the centrepiece of the meal should always be carp. The Czech tradition of eating carp is a very old one, probably dating back a thousand years or more to the early Christian period, when monasteries would construct special fish-ponds for raising carp to eat. The cultivation of carp really took off in southern Bohemia after the early 15th century on the estates of the powerful Rožmberk family, and especially thanks to the work of their celebrated Master of Fisheries Jakub Krčín (1535-1604), who oversaw the building of a network of lakes that still supply carp to this day.
Buying carp before Christmas is a task that many westerners find… disturbing. A week or two before Štědrý den, large blue plastic vats overflowing with water begin to appear outside supermarkets, on street corners and in other places in villages, towns and cities across the country, and these vats are filled with carp, brought up from the lakes of Southern Bohemia. These are big fish: 5-8 kg is a pretty standard size. Long queues form, regardless of freezing winds and snow, and people simply choose their carp from the small shoal swimming around in front of them. Up until quite recently, many families would take their live carp home with them and put it in the bathtub for a few days as a sort of ‘pet’, albeit one whose remaining days were very short in number. Nowadays, the fishmongers who run the carp stalls usually just hoik the animal out of the water, whack it on the head with a hammer and then either wrap it up and give it to the customer (hopefully not still flapping), or behead and gut it on the spot. Once they get going, it doesn’t take long before the pavement is running red with fish blood.
The fish itself is prepared by being filleted, breaded and fried until golden brown, and it is always served with remarkable quantities of potato salad. This may sound easy, but filleting a big carp is serious manual labour, and nothing can go to waste: fish giblet soup is one of the highlights of the whole meal.
The other essential component to any Czech Christmas is watching pohádky, which are filmed versions of classic fairy tales. This is a tradition that really took off in the early years of the communist period, and one of the first pohádky is still one of the most loved: Císařův pekař a pekařův císař (The Emperor’s Baker and the Baker’s Emperor, 1951), written by and starring Jan Werich – an actor and writer of great importance in Czech theatre and film history. I should also mention Pyšná princezna (The Proud Princess, 1952), Princezna se zlatou hvězdou (The Princess with the Golden Star, 1959), the extraordinary, expressionist (and genuinely scary) Tři zlaté vlasy Děda Vševěda (The Three Golden Hairs of Grandpa Knowall, 1963), not forgetting the delightful and hugely popular Tři oříšky pro Popelku (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, 1973). And no Christmas would be complete without the Russian fairy tale Mrazík (Old Father Frost, 1967). I first saw it in the cinema during that first Christmas in Brno in 1993 and the atmosphere was like a late-night showing of The Rocky Horror Show here in England: the audience knew every word of the story of Ivanko and the lovely Nastěnka, and sang along to the soundtrack of the film.
These classic pohádky are an integral part of the Czech Christmas ritual. The TV papers are eagerly scanned to see when Tři oříšky or Pyšná princezna are showing, and on that basis lunch, supper, or visits to and from friends and family are carefully arranged. More surprisingly still for the uninitiated foreigner, the same films are watched religiously every year and enjoyed just as much as they were in previous years. Pohádky, in short, are as much a part of Christmas as cukroví and carp.
Adventures on the Bookshelf will be taking a break now for Christmas but we’ll be back on 9th January. Have a great festive period and Merry Christmas – or, as they say in Czech, ‘Veselé Vánoce!’
A blog for students and teachers of Years 11 to 13, and anyone else with an interest in Modern Foreign Languages and Cultures, written by the staff and students of Oxford University. Updated every Wednesday!
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