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3# From the bathtub to the table: Christmas Eve Carp!

4 min read

There are many ways to ensure your meal is fresh: first, you can grow it yourself, or you can buy it directly from the farm. Or you can take it home alive and let it swim in your bathtub!
The latter method is a Christmas Eve carp tradition in Slovakia, Poland, and Czech Republic.
For centuries, families throughout much of central Europe have relied on one simple main course for Christmas Eve dinner: the common carp, a symbol of good luck and classic meat-free meal for Christians.
Strong Catholic traditions in Eastern European countries brought about the carp tradition hundreds of years ago. Fish became popular for Christmas Eve dinner during the 13th century, because Catholics considered fish as a fasting food, and Christmas Eve was the last day of the Advent fast. The history of eating fish on Christmas Eve is entirely due to the fact that Catholics couldn’t eat meat during the fast.
Keeping one’s fish in the bathtub for several days likely began as a practical way to store fresh fish before refrigerators became common, even though on current days some swear the tub time helps cleanse the bottom-feeding carp of any mud in its digestive tract, even if this scientifically actually would take much longer.

But getting from river (or carp farm, or fishmongers) to table is not so simple. As the tradition goes, the Christmas carp must first swim in the family bathtub for at least a day or two before being killed, cleaned and prepared. The fish actually live in the bathtub for days, kids name them and have fun playing with them, and family members can’t bathe.
Bathtub carp is one of several traditions tied to Christmas Eve, a day that is the centerpiece of holiday celebrations for Slovaks and some others in central Europe. It is also the day, children are told, when baby Jesus brings a Christmas tree, a practice that requires some elaborate subterfuge from parents, who must hide and decorate the tree behind “closed doors”. Later in the day, the children get their gifts.

A magic tradition, but not for the carp.
When Christmas Eve arrives, it’s time for the family to kill their temporary pet. Traditionally, the father takes the live fish from the family tub and, in most cases, slices its head off with a knife.
Once the fish has been killed, it is cleaned, then soaked in milk (and sometimes salt) to dull the smell and sweeten the meat. It is sliced top to bottom, creating pieces in the shape of horseshoes, intended to bring good luck. According to the legend, the carp itself brings luck, too, one of the reasons it is said to have become the Christmas meal of choice. The carp is served usually fried, often breaded. On Slovakian and Czech tables, it’s often accompanied by cabbage soup (or by a dark plum sauce in some Czech families, or fish soup in others) and potato salad, while in Poland, the dish is one of 12 in a Christmas Eve feast known as the Wigilia supper (but this is another story). The carp’s role even extends beyond the dinner plate: In all three cultures, it’s common for family members to keep the fish’s scales in their wallets for good luck until the following Christmas Eve.

In central Europe, expecially in Slovakia, the holiday is steeped in superstition and symbolism. The table is set with all of the foods for the feast before everyone sits down, as no one is permitted to get up during the meal. If someone leaves the table, even to go to the bathroom, it means there will be a death in the family before the next Christmas arrives, and family also set an extra place for either an unexpected visitor or a departed relative.
If you ask most people, they will tell you that the common carp is not a delicacy. It’s full of little bones, and some say they only eat it on Christmas Eve because it’s a tradition.

The holiday custom of keeping a carp in the tub actually spans religions. To make carp, perhaps best known as gefilte fish – stuffed and served cold in jelly, for Passover, some Jewish families once used the same technique. Although it’s largely faded from use in the Jewish community, the practice was memorialized in a 1972 children’s book, The Carp in the Bathtub, which tells of two siblings’ attempts to save their fish from the Seder table in New York. While their rescue mission fails, there are quite a few true stories of holiday carp miracles, with families taking a shine to their bathtub pet and setting it free instead of adding it to the menu.
Though not as popular, Christmas carp is also served in some parts of eastern Germany, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, but it is less of a ritual and is served differently.

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