With the year almost at a close, it's normal to wonder what the new one has in store. While some of us make resolutions, Czech folklore leaves the future to chance, seeing destiny in how a thrown shoe lands, the arrangement of seeds in a sliced apple or in the shapes formed by lead poured into water.
Anyone familiar with the Czech film “Pelíšky” knows the scene where Jiří Kodet's character, Kraus, pours molten lead into water and then inspects the misshapen mass to foretell the future. After his wife asks him what he sees, he announces, “I give the Bolsheviks a year, two at most.”
The inclusion of the lead pouring scene was not so much a stab at the accuracy of this type of divination as much as it showed how old-fashioned Kraus was.
Pouring lead on Christmas Eve seems to have strong associations with a traditional Christmas. Michaela Zindelová et al. claim in A Czech Christmas Book that at the beginning of last century lead was poured at Christmas in every family. The roots of the tradition maybe a lot older, allegedly going back to the Celts who once inhabited this land. However, the more recent popularity probably arose from the fact lead melts easily. A tree can signify hope whereas a coffin is a sign to say good-bye to your dreams.
Traditionally, the prognostications have been of a more personal nature than the one Kraus made. People pour the molten lead, sometimes through the handle of a key, wait five minutes for the metal to harden then study the swirls and contours to see what the future will bring.
For example, a tree can signify hope where as a coffin is a sign to say good-bye to your dreams. And because this is the Czech Republic, a bottle indicates that everything will be all right. Other readings don't look so much for concrete objects, but focus on more abstract shapes and patterns.
According to a survey carried out by Factum Invenio and reported in Lidové noviny the practice is not so widespread today; only seven percent of Czechs uphold this tradition. The decline began quite early. Lead was scarce because of two world wars. The metal was used in munitions.
Manufacturers of lead pouring sets say that there is still some interest. Stařičná from the firm Vánoční Lití Olova said she sold about 20,000 sets a year and interest was growing by about one hundred percent a year. A more popular source of lead, though, are anglers’ shops. People just buy sinkers to melt down.
Walnut shells are also used for prediction. Into one half of a walnut shell a small candle is placed. In the past they were the remains of votive candles. Today people use whatever candle will fit.
Once the candle is fitted, the walnut shells are placed on the water and left to drift – like little boats, hence the name for the tradition in Czech – lodičky. Just as the 'boat' is released, the person asks a question. The behavior of the boat and the candle determines the answer. Boats that form a tight circle means that the people who released them live together in mutual regard and friendship.
For example, if the boat stays on the side where it was release, the person should expect everything to remain as before. If it sinks, your planned efforts will be in vain.
The traditional interpretations aren’t always negative. Boats that form a tight circle means that the people who released them live together in mutual regard and friendship.
Zindelová’s book also suggests a pre-Christian origin to the practice. This theory could have some validity because the walnut tree and the nut were apparently associated with the god Jove (Jupiter) by the ancient Romans.
Maybe the tradition’s longevity stems from the simple fact that people were looking for way to entertain themselves on Christmas Eve and had a lot empty walnut shells around because walnuts are a popular ingredient in Christmas sweets.
Fruit of Knowledge
The cutting of an apple in half to predict the future leaves little room for interpretation. The apple is cut through the middle, not lengthwise. If there are four seeds in the shape of a cross, illness or death is said to come. If there are five seeds in the form of a star, health and happiness is predicted.
The availability of apples and the ease of performing this practice is perhaps why this is one of the most popular of the Christmas traditions. The neat star formation embedded within a ripe glossy apple also creates a healthy image which adds to the good-cheer of the season.
Like the walnut, the apple has a pre-Christian significance that may be the basis for this tradition. Apples were important in Germanic and ancient Greek myths. Also the fruit in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is often depicted as an apple.
A Shoe In
Perhaps the simplest Christmas tradition is throwing the shoe. A young woman throws a shoe backward over her head. If it lands with the toes pointing to the door, it’s predicted she will leave home in the next year. If the toes point inwards she will stay. The quaintness of the tradition is even revealed in its name. Most references to the custom refer to it as házení střevíců. “Střevíc” is an old Czech word for shoe.
It could be this narrow focus which makes the custom of throwing the shoe less popular than other traditions. In a small anonymous Internet survey of 45 people conducted by the writer, no respondents said they partook in the show throwing. Overwhelmingly the most popular was cutting the apple, with nearly fifty percent taking part.
As to why they did it, most people said it was either because of tradition or because it was something their family did. However, a large percentage also said that they did not participate at all.
— Ryan Scott is a Prague-based freelance journalist