Carp scales, walnut shell boats and molten lead help to predict fortunes for the coming year.
As the new year approaches, people are naturally curious about what the next year will bring and also take steps to ensure good luck. In Bohemia, a few holiday traditions have been passed down from one generation to another.
Czechs celebrate Christmas on the evening of Dec. 24, usually with a traditional meal of fried or baked carp and potato salad. Nowadays, people buy carp fresh from street vendors just before Christmas Eve. While less common now, people used to bring a live carp home and keep it in a bathtub for a few days before preparing it for dinner. But this was quite traumatic for children who often bonded with the fish.
Fish is on the menu because of a once-popular Christian tradition (but not an actual requirement) to avoid meat on Christmas.
If you put one or two scales from the carp in your wallet, you are guaranteed to have good luck and lots of money all year.
During the day of Dec. 24, people should fast before the Christmas Eve meal until they see a vision of a golden pig. This serves a practical purpose, as the person preparing the holiday dinner won’t have to stop to make breakfast and lunch for everyone. Golden pigs are very common holiday decorations, ranging from gingerbread to glass.
A series of traditional rituals can be performed on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. Unmarried women can throw a shoe, and if the toe points toward the front door, the woman will get married within the next year. If it points away, she will remain single.
Another custom involves slicing an apple in half horizontally across the center. According to tradition, the seeds inside the apple foretell the health of those gathered around the table. If the seeds form a perfect five-pointed star, then everyone present will have continued health. An incomplete star with fewer than five seeds forewarns of illness for someone.
To find out whether you will travel in the next year, you can place a candle in a half-shell of a walnut to make a small boat. Place the boat in the water in a basin or bathtub and light the candle. If the boat drifts away from the basin’s edge, the person who lit the candle will have a journey in the coming year.
Another custom includes baking a holiday pastry called a vánočka before Christmas. The cake is a type of braided raisin bread. A single hard pea is baked into the bread. The special bread is sliced on New Year’s Eve, and the person who gets the slice with the pea will have a successful year.
Another way of predicting the future has fallen to the wayside due to safety concerns. Molybdomancy involves making predictions from the shapes created by molten lead. The practice in Czech is called “lití olova” or “lead pouring”.
Small lead ingots or pellets can be melted in a ladle over a candle flame. The molten lead when poured into cold water creates shapes that can be interpreted.
Reading the metal blobs is a bit like seeing shapes in clouds. Roundish coin-shaped blobs can mean that money is on the way. Jagged forms are an ill omen for rough times. Something that looks like a key or a ladder could mean a promotion. A boat or plane could mean travel. A cat indicated jealousy, a bat means volatility and a camel foretells of overcoming an obstacle. Birds are harbingers of important messages.
For women, the shapes could indicate the profession of their future husband. A blob that looks like a shoe meant a cobbler while one that resembles a weapon indicates a military man. But for a married woman, a shoe could represent infidelity.
Unfortunately, lead is toxic, and the fumes from molten lead can cause health problems. The ladle used to melt lead ingots should not be used for food.
In recent years, people have been encouraged to substitute melted wax or tin. In some parts of the European Union, such as Germany, it is no longer legal to sell divination kits with lead ingots
People also used to sprinkle salt around their homes on New Year’s Eve to protect against evil spirits. In order to be safe on the road, people would go around the house three times at midnight with a suitcase or trunk in hand. Both of these last ones are hard to do for people who live in an apartment.
In addition to these holiday traditions for looking toward the future, Bohemia has two popular methods of cartomancy, or card reading. Tarot, for example, was used by famous 20th century Czech opera diva Ema Destinnová and occultist Pierre de Lasenic (Petr Pavel Kohout), both of whom designed their own decks.
More recently, originally in 2003, we designed The Tarot of Prague which draws on the symbolism of the art and architecture of the city. There is also another system, often referred to as gypsy cards, though never used by gypsies, based on the 32 or 36 card deck probably originally derived from the cards used to play mariáš. In 2022, BabaBarock brought out two decks that use this system – The Bohemian Fortune Telling Cards and Mercury’s Fortune Telling cards.
Main image: Walnut boats at a Christmas market in Prague.