“Vánočka” is a very large semi-sweet braided Czech Christmas bread that is the symbol of Christmas in Czech Republic. It’s a treat you can see in nearly every Czech household, just prior to and/or during the Christmas holidays. Its name derives from the very word for Christmas in Czech, which is “vánoce”.
Vánočka dates back to at least the Middle Ages and is also popular, by other names, in countries like Germany and Austria. The first known mention of this sweet bread was made by a Benedictine monk named Jan of Holešov in his 15th century publication Treatise on Christmas Eve. In that, he described and analyzed various Czech folk customs related to Christmas celebrations.
The special shape and braiding of the bread are said to represent the swaddled baby Jesus. Even a slice has the faintest appearance (blanket, arms, head). Though there are various methods to braid vánočka, a common one consists of a bottom 4-rope braid (said to represent earth, sun, water, and air), topped with a 3-rope middle braid (symbolizing reason, will, and emotion), and then a 2-rope top braid (for love and wisdom). These altogether are meant to bring people closer to God.
The vánočka’s interior likely has some meaning, too. The raisins may represent the eyes of Jesus. The other flavors and goodies, sort of “gifts” of the holiday. Traditionally, vánočka was also a gift to the poor and hungry at Christmas-time. Many home bakers make more than one to share with friends and family. In its earliest years, it was mostly made by skilled local bakers, but around the 18th century, more and more home bakers took on the challenge. For sure, the braiding is a little challenge, but not one that can’t be overcome. I can do it, so you could, too.
In this post, I briefly describe two versions of vánočka with links to my posts containing full recipes, instructions, and various photos. Their methods of leavening are slightly different, with one requiring yeast and the other baking powder and other leavening agents.
Vánočka traditionally contains rum soaked raisins, almonds, a touch of lemon zest, and vanilla flavoring. It is possible to switch up the fruit in the recipe, and you could decorate the top with either almond slices, slivers, or whole blanched/peeled almonds, with a dusting of confectioners sugar. Other fruit options could include dried cranberries or cherries (rehydrated in rum, other liquor, or just water), or chopped candied fruit, such as orange peel, cherries, apricot, pineapple, or the like. Or a combination. Also, though not a tradition in my husband’s family, I’ve heard of some Czechs adding a single dried green pea to the dough, so whomever “finds it” may have good luck in the coming year.
How best to enjoy vánočka? Slices can be eaten plain, with a touch of butter or honey, or even fruit preserves. Mostly consumed at breakfast, it can also be enjoyed throughout the day. Each completed long loaf serves between 16 to 20. Fully baked, they are about 40 cm (~16 inches) long, so you’ll need a long baking sheet.
Vánočka Version 1 – Traditional yeast-raised vanočká
This is the most common approach to making vánočka, using yeast for leavening. It requires two separate risings during the preparation process. From start to finish, expect it to take around 4 ½ hours to make. For the recipe and instructions on braiding this bread, click Traditional Yeast-Raised Vánočka.
Vanočká Version 2 – With farmers cheese (Tvarohová Vanočká)
This version is made without yeast, rather using baking powder and the other natural leavening agents. It also includes soft-style farmers cheese (tvaroh), which increases its richness and aids in keeping it moist and delicious. It is quicker to make than version 1, requiring only about 2 hours from start to finish. For the recipe and instructions of this version, click Czech Farmers Cheese Christmas Bread (Tvarohová Vanočká).
Two years ago, I posted 10 Varieties of Czech Christmas Cookies, which included the bonus holiday sweet bread called “Biskupský Chlebíček” (Bishop’s Bread). You can check them out now. I will also soon be posting other Czech recipes popular during the Christmas season. Stay tuned!
Like vánočka? Then there is a similar Czech holiday bread for Easter, called “Mazanec”. My mother-in-law’s recipe can be found on my blog, by clicking here. It’s shaped into a round loaf, with a slightly heavier texture.
Those interested in Czech cooking may find benefit from my posts Finding Czech and Slovak Groceries in the US & UK and Czech & Slovak Flours in the US & UK (and substitutions).