LOCATION: Czech Republic
POPULATION: About 10.3 million
RELIGION: Christianity (Roman Catholicism and Protestantism)
The Czech Republic (formerly known as Czechoslovakia) is very young. On January 1, 1993 it decided to end its union with Slovakia after more than three-quarters of a century.
For nearly three centuries (1620 to 1918), Bohemia, the Czech homeland, was a province of the Habsburg Empire. With Allied support, the Czecho-Slovak republic was established in Prague immediately after World War I. It united Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia into Czechoslovakia. In February 1948 a communist overthrow brought the country under Soviet domination. After the fall of communism in Hungary and Poland, the communist government resigned. Vaclav Havel (1936–), a playwright whose plays challenged communism, became the president of an independent and democratic Czechoslovakia in 1990. When Czechoslovakia became independent from the Soviet Union, there was no violence, so the process became known as the Velvet Revolution.
With an area of 30,450 square miles (78,865 square kilometers), the Czech Republic is approximately the size of South Carolina. Its landscape is made up mostly of wooded hills, valleys, and small, heavily farmed plateaus. The capital city is Prague. The Czech Republic has a population of about 10.3 million. The southeastern region of the Czech Republic (near the border with Slovakia) is known as Moravia. The southwestern region, near the border with Germany and Austria, is known as Bohemia.
Czech is one of a group of Slavic languages that use the Roman rather than the Cyrillic alphabet. It is divided into two forms: spisovna cestina is the written language and hovorova is used in conversation.
Some examples of the Czech language are: dobry den ("hello" or "good day"); kde je ? (where is…?); and kolik to stoji? (how much does it cost?).
A major folklore festival is held in Stráznice, in eastern Moravia. During the communist era, the government encouraged the country's folkloric traditions but used them as an instrument of control within a larger framework of political activities, thus alienating a number of Czechs, especially young ones, from their own heritage. Some artists, however, managed to express dissent in forms such as folk songs and fairy tales.
Over 80 percent of the population is either Catholic or Protestant. While the communists controlled the Czechs, they were forbidden to practice their religions. However, the Catholic Church secretly remained active. In April 1990, the leader of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, celebrated Mass in Prague before a crowd of over half a million Czechs.
National holidays include Jan Hus Memorial Day (July 6), Czechoslovak Independence Day (October 28), celebration of the Velvet Revolution (November 17), and commemoration of the end of World War II (May 8).
Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) is said to arrive on the eve of December 5. Usually a person dressed as the saint, accompanied by two people—one dressed as an angel and the other as a devil, walk the streets. Christmas trees are set up in the town square on Christmas Eve. A fruit bread called vanocka is eaten during Lent and before Christmas. On New Year's people exchange special candies for good luck.
Most Czechs observe major life events, such as births, weddings, and deaths, within either the Catholic or Protestant religious traditions.
When two strangers meet, they shake hands firmly. They both say their last names. Then they exchange a standard greeting, like teši mne (pleased to meet you) or dobrý den (good day). Terms for good-bye include na chledanou and the less formal ciao. When a man and woman meet, the man usually waits for the woman to hold out her hand first. People address each other by their last names unless they know each other well. Czechs often gesture with their hands when they talk.
Many people have chaty , second homes in the country. Still, the Czech Republic has a serious housing shortage. Many city dwellers live in large apartment complexes. Young couples seldom begin their married life in a home of their own. They usually live with the husband's or wife's parents for several years.
Serve warm with sour cream.
Adapted from Lois Sinaiko Webb, Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students, Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1995.
Families in rural areas tend to be larger than those in cities. City families usually have no more than two children. In the cities, many married couples have no children. Most mothers work outside the home. However, they still have most of the responsibility for raising the children and keeping house. Grandparents often help with child care. Parents and adult children commonly maintain strong ties. Often, they share a country house or a car. Adults commonly assume responsibility for their aging parents. The incidence of divorce has risen sharply since the 1960s.
Most Czechs dress in modern, Western-style clothing. Traditional folk costumes, featuring lace and embroidery, are still worn on special occasions. The men's costume features a white shirt with wide sleeves gathered at the wrists. Women wear gathered skirts and blouses made of simple materials such as linen and cotton. In the 1800s, many dresses were made from fabrics dyed with indigo. Indigo was brought to Europe by traders from Asia, and the deep blue color became popular among many European culture groups.
Czechs enjoy eating hearty dishes such as roasted meats, wild game, vegetables, dumplings, and pastries. One of the most popular Czech dishes— vepro-knedlo-zelo— includes roast pork, sauerkraut, and the popular knedliky (dumplings), made by boiling or steaming a mixture of flour, eggs, milk, and dried bread crumbs.
Czech children attend grade school for five years (from ages six to eleven). Then they receive eight years of secondary schooling. At this level, they must choose between academic, technical, and teacher training schools. The Czech Republic has twenty-three colleges and universities. The oldest, Charles University, was founded in 1348.
The most famous twentieth-century Czech writer was Franz Kafka (1883–1924). His works influenced the writings of later Czech authors such as Milan Kundera (1929–), Josef Skvorecky, and Ivan Klima. Playwright Vaclav Havel, who was jailed for criticizing the communist regime, later became president of the Czech Republic.
Czech folk music has become world famous through the compositions of Antonin Dvorak (1841–1904) and other Czech composers.
Traditional types of employment are farming, mining coal and other minerals, and industrial jobs. With the end of communist government, the Czech Republic quickly shifted to a free-market economy that brought higher wages and a better living standard for workers. Although salaries are still low, the vast majority of the Czech population is employed.
The mountainous Czech landscape is excellent for skiing, rock climbing, and hiking. Water sports are enjoyed in the lakes of southern Bohemia. Tennis is extremely popular among young Czechs. Other favorite sports are soccer, hockey, volleyball, and basketball.
Czechs spend much of their leisure time outdoors. Urban dwellers often spend weekends and vacations in their country homes. There are also many campgrounds throughout the countryside. Other leisure activities include travel, movies and concerts, dancing, and television.
Glass works and other decorative crafts are among the folk arts of the Czech Republic. Bohemia is known for its unusual crystal objects and deep red garnet stones.
Although the Czech Republic has greatly improved its economy and has established democracy, social problems remain. Prices for energy and everyday items have gone up greatly. Also, the country has serious levels of air, water, and soil pollution.
Ivory, Michael. Essential Czech Republic. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Passport Books, 1994.
Otfinoski, Steven. The Czech Republic. New York: Facts on File, 1996.
Skalnik, Carol. The Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic: Nation vs. State. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997.
Webb, Lois Sinaiko. Holidays of the World Cookbook for Students. Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx, 1995.