Santa can’t have all the traveling fun during the holiday season. And part of the joy of traveling to the European Christmas Markets is learning about unique traditions along the way.

In particular, the different twists on Santa Claus. In the Czech Republic, St. Nick takes the vastly different form of Mikulás… although they’re more like brothers instead of the same person. Forget the North Pole, the famous red velvet coat, white cuffs and black gloves. Forget the magical, world-flying sleigh, and yes – forget Rudolph and even Mrs. Claus. Mikulás is single, prefers the white robes of a bishop and is lowered down to Earth from his home in the heavens via a basket and golden rope. Instead of nine reindeer and a stowaway elf every now and again, Santa’s traveling partners are always his two assistants: an angel and devil, known as Krampus. Good children are represented by the angel. Bad children get a friendly scare – and perhaps some onions, raw potatoes and/or coal -- from Krampus. And a few weeks before Christmas Eve, on the eve of December 5th aka the Eve of St. Mikulás, the trio walk around the town handing gifts to children. But unlike the more mysterious St. Nick, students dress up as the yuletide trio and walk around the Old Square in Prague – so sightings are quite common.

A few weeks later, on December 24th, it’s not Santa Claus or Mikulás -- but rather Baby Jesus or Jezisek -- who leaves gifts under the tree. No North Pole for Baby Jesus either – he’s said to live high in the mountains, in the town of Boží Dar where a post office accepts and stamps letters to him.

In various forms, these time-honoured traditions are also well-known in Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Poland. And naturally, they are celebrated with delicious regional foods and artisanal crafts throughout Prague’s boisterous Christmas Markets. The two largest markets are held at the Old Town Square and the Wenceslas Square, centrally located in the heart of the city and only about a five minute walk from each other. Gifts of traditional Czech cookies, Christmas potpourri, honeyed gingerbread, braided pastries are all easy to find, along with wooden toys, crafts, clothing and candles depicting Prague folklore and holiday traditions. An animal stable and large Bethlehem nativity scene can also be enjoyed at the Old Town Square market.

And what would a Prague Christmas be without carp? Yes, the fish. While Americans enjoy dining on turkey, carp is central to a traditional Czech holiday dinner. Typically brought in live from street sellers in the days leading up to Christmas, the carp is then breaded and fried and served along with a smorgasbord of fish soup, potato salad and apple strudel. Look for some of these at the market.

Close to the markets, you might also be able to take in a classical concert at one of Prague’s ancient churches or music halls for a magical, authentic experience. Now that’s a gift Santa would be sure to appreciate!

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