Prague, Czech Republic – In many Central and Eastern European countries, the main meal served for the Christmas feast is neither duck nor turkey, but carp.
For foreigners unaccustomed to local habits, eating a freshwater fish as the main dish for Christmas might be one of the most mind-boggling and head-scratching traditions of all (trust us, there are others). Especially in landlocked countries where meat in all its glory is a central part of the daily diet all year long.
So, as the end of the year approaches, here’s everything you need to know about this fascinatingly odd Christmas tradition.
Eating carp for Christmas, a widespread tradition in Central and Eastern Europe
The tradition of eating carp for Christmas is particularly alive and well in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland. But some families in Hungary, Austria, Germany and Croatia may also be fond of it and indulge in that delicacy at Christmas time.
According to most, this traditions dates back to the Middle Ages. “Fish became popular for Christmas Eve dinner during the 13th century, because Catholics considered fish as a fasting good and Christmas Eve was the last day of the Advent fast”, Slovak resident Jozefina Babicova told Culture Trip. “The history of eating fish on Christmas Eve is entirely due to the fact that Catholics couldn’t eat meat during the fast”.
This doesn’t explain, however, why other Catholic countries, in Western Europe for instance, are now enthusiastic meat-eaters for Christmas; and although Slovakia and Poland have remained, up until today, strong Catholic nations, the same cannot be said about the Czech Republic, often described as one of the least religious countries in the world.
Others point to more practical reasons: the abundance of carps in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, where pond culture of carp is widespread and accounts for most of both countries’ aquaculture. The greatest rise in fishpond cultivation in the Czech Republic, for instance, came in the 15th and 16th centuries, mainly in South Bohemia, often referred to as the “lake district” of the country.
Even today, carps remain a cheap delicacy and are much more affordable than duck or turkey, and thus more appropriate for a festive meal in large groups.
Talking to Radio Prague, the head of the Trebon Fisheries Josef Malacha highlighted this centuries-old expertise: “We have considerable know-how in breeding carp, handed down from generation to generation over the last 500 years. Our fishponds are an ideal environment for them and we constantly work on improving their quality. So carp is what the Czech consumer wants”.
From the family bathtub to the dinner table: the journey of a Christmas carp
But if you thought eating carp was the strangest part of the tradition, you’re in for a surprise. What’s truly odd is what comes before: per tradition, families usually buy the carps alive a few days before Christmas in one of the many carp stalls or stands that can be found in cities throughout December… and then put the fish in their very own bathtub.
This proximity might sometimes have unintended consequences. During that time, children often get attached to their upcoming meal and even give carps a name. Witnessing the carp swim in the bathtub has a lot to do with how popular this tradition has remained over the centuries, and is highly appreciated by the little ones – some of whom may have a change of heart at the idea of devouring their new pet, leading them to plead for the carp’s release.
This bathtub experience is supposed to make the fish cleaner. Today however, many families don’t keep carps in their own bathtub and instead buy them, already dead, in street stalls before putting them in the freezer for a couple of days. As The Independent highlighted, new generations are not that keen on buying the carp alive before butchering it.
In several countries, including the Czech Republic, animal activists have long opposed the sale of live carps in the street. Moreover, younger generations are slowly turning away from this tradition and are increasingly fond of other fish, although less local and more expensive – like salmon – for their Christmas feast.
Are you ready for the Christmas feast?
The way carps are served on the dinner table slightly varies from one country to the next.
In Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the carp is usually served breaded and fried along with other dishes like cabbage soups and potato salads. In Poland, carp is only one part of an extensive 12-dish meal and often comes with dumplings, or pierogi. In Hungary, it may often be cooked directly in a fish soup.
Should you try it? “It’s fat, muddy and has lots of fishbones which makes eating it a challenging task”, Culture.pl warns. “On the other hand, its taste really stands out in comparison to other fish and, because you probably won’t eat it elsewhere or at some other time, it might be worth giving it a go”. The choice is yours.
And if you’re not in the mood for carp, you can check out our home-made Christmas recipes and other meals brought to you from the far corners of Central Europe, from Chlodnik, Poland’s gazpacho to a traditional Hungarian cheese spread or Slovakia’s cherished halusky.