It’s the most wonderful time of the year… apparently. Once again, a year has managed to sneak past almost unnoticed. Trees bloomed and blossomed and shed their dead leaves in the blink of an eye, and we stand here again in the frost, waiting to spend our hard-earned money on presents that nobody will really appreciate. And, as always, I’m really excited.
I’ve always been a big fan of Christmas. I was the one who woke up at 4am and nudged my reluctant family from their slumber so that I could open my presents, greedily. In later years I was the one who sulked after dinner because I was already bored, went on MSN with a glass of Baileys and wrote cynical poetry about commercialism… and yet I still got excited every time my advent calendar windows started to run out. Since I’ve been living away from home, it’s particularly exciting, as it’s the time that I spend with my family and friends – and this year, Jeff will be spending it with us, too.
This time last year I was in Japan, witnessing their strange observing of Christmas – a massive line of couples waiting outside KFC on Christmas Eve, because what could be more appropriate on “Kurisumasu” than some fried chicken? Add to this a series of light shows that would drain the national grid of a modestly-sized nation and some “traditional” cakes adorned with strawberries, and it was little wonder that I wanted to spend an unsightly sum of money flying back to Wales for some home-cooked turkey and Yorkshire puddings.
In Manchester, I would spend hours walking around the Christmas markets, sampling their finest cheeses, pancakes and mulled wine. It was my favourite thing to do, so it’s lucky for me that I’m living in a city with several Christmas markets – from big ones in the center to tiny ones outside shopping malls. Pictured above is Old Town Square and its market; an expensive tourist trap, for sure, but one that provided me with my first taste of mead. It’s alcohol made with honey, if you didn’t know, and the main draw for me was that it is often the beverage of choice in books written, or set in, the “olden days”. Interestingly (to me and other word-geeks) the Czech word for honey is “med”, similar to the Italian “miele” (I think) and the Welsh “mêl”.
As well as markets and trees, I was naturally keen to find out about a typical Czech Christmas, so I asked my students to describe a typical Czech Christmas day. I was expecting it to be a little different; after all, I’ve found some interesting differences between Britain and the U.S.A. when it comes to celebrating the big day (even if it’s just that they have no idea what Christmas pudding consists of). What I found out was certainly very different…
The Czechs celebrate Christmas the night before, on Christmas Eve – with a traditional meal of potato salad and carp. Yes, carp. These days, some families opt for chicken or turkey, but the typical staple is fried carp, normally kept fresh at home for a few days before being cooked. What do I mean by fresh? Well, of course – alive, at home, in the bath. You can picture the look on an uninformed guest as they stroll into the bathroom on December 23rd and glance into the tub. After this meal, the children are inconspicuously ushered out of the room, just in time to hear bells and to be told that their presents arrived the moment they walked out! Yay, presents on Christmas Eve – good old Santa must have started extra early-wait, no, it isn’t Santa who delivers presents here; it’s Baby Jesus. Perhaps I haven’t quite caught this right, as I was under the impression that I was living in a mostly atheist country, but nope, it’s little Jesus himself who brings the goods; and he is, as my students tell me, “invisible and very quick”.
People are aware of Santa here, but he mostly exists on Coca-Cola ads on the Metro. It seems, though, that the story of St Nicholas has evolved here in a slightly different way; while he became a fat, jolly man in a red suit for some of us, his more “traditional” image – papal hats and robes – remains here, leaving the flowing white beard as the only physical similarity. His name in the Czech Republic is “Saint Mikulaš” and he visits on the 6th of December (starting from the night of the 5th). His actual connection to Christmas day here doesn’t seem very strong, although there are some Santa-related similarities beside the white beard that you can see if you look closely enough…
While Mr Claus warns children that he’s keeping a list, checking it twice, going to find out who’s naughty and nice, St Mikulaš gives out slightly harsher punishments than the denying of expensive gifts. Not one to travel alone, he is always seen in a trio – himself, an angel, and a devil. Children who have been “bad” are warned by the devil that they will be put in his sack and taken to hell. They can sing a song to save their souls, and that was one of the first things I saw last Monday night in Old Town Square.
You might think that it’s a little cruel to warn your child that not cleaning their room will result in their being carted off to hell, and that’s certainly what I thought when I heard of it. Hearing of Jeff’s students – as young as six – trembling with fear before the dreaded visit, learning that some parents actually hire this entourage to turn up at their door, sounded horrendous to me. The Czech adults that I speak to don’t seem traumatised, though – in fact, they laugh at the memory, seeing it as part of the magic of childhood innocence. It did make me wonder; in our Santa-obsessed nations, the worst possible punishment from fictional characters is the withdrawal of material goods – what does that say about us?
But I think the tradition must have a lot of similar origins.. here, the naughty children are of course never taken anywhere (apart from in very worrying cases) but might be handed a piece of coal or a potato as a warning. My grandmother still tells me today that naughty British children would get nothing but a lump of coal on Christmas day (and an apple and an orange if they were lucky), and a little Wikipedia research brought me to realise how differently every European country celebrates this time of year. Interesting, isn’t it?
I managed to get a picture with some devils, too. I’m not sure whether their painted black faces would go down well back home and other more politically correct countries, although I’m sure they’d say it was because the coals from the fires of hell have made them very dirty… hmm.