2013/01/17

Adam Spanier: A Very Czech Christmas


This year I spent my first Christmas away from home. And I feel like everyone in my entire town was aware of it:

"Oh, you're not going home?"
"Are you going to eat dinner by yourself?"
"Will you be okay?"
"Maybe I can ask my mom if you can come over for dinner..?"

Alas, don't worry. I survived.

Before I get into the details of it all, I'd like to enlighten you with the knowledge of some interesting Czech Christmas traditions (warning: I'm going to generalize a lot. Not ALL Czech people do all of these things, there are obviously variations, differences, etc...):

1. They celebrate Saint Nicholas on December 5th. However, Mikuláš (St. Nick) doesn't come alone. He brings both a devil and an angel with him. If you were a good kid, the angel will give you candy. If you were bad, the devil will put you in his bag and take you away. Yup. Scary.
An angel, a devil, and St. Nicholas

2. Christmas is on the 24th. Not the 25th.

3. Czech people (usually) put up their Christmas tree on December 23rd/24th
Uničov Town Squre

My students could not get over the fact that my family usually puts up the Christmas tree a couple weeks before Christmas. "Why so early? That's way too early," they would say.

My rebuttal: "Hey. Tesco (the Czech/UK Walmart/Target equivalent) had Christmas trees up in the middle of November. I saw the new James Bond movie on November 14th and there were already Christmas advertisements. At least most Americans have to wait until after Thanksgiving to hear/see Christmas stuff."
Also, presents are not put under the Christmas tree until Christmas evening after dinner when....

4. ...Ježíšek comes!  Yeah, baby Jesus. Not Santa Claus
Cute Baby

So, on Christmas day (remember, the 24th), after dinner children will casually be led away from the Christmas tree momentarily and then "RING, RING!" They will hear a bell. Baby Jesus has come and left presents under the Christmas tree. And this tradition is also in other European countries.

Be good kids. Baby Jesus is watching you (at least he's watching Czech, Slovaks, Poles, and Germans...)

5. Be prepared to eat a lot of Christmas Cookies.
Czech Christmas Cookies

Czech people want to get me fat. Christmas was full of beer, wine, and slivovice (brandy usually made from plums). It was also full of Christmas cookies.

The box of Christmas cookies above is just one of FOUR boxes that I received from other teachers and friends as a present. Yeah. I gained a little bit of weight.

So, my Czech Christmas? It was incredible. I spent all day with my mentor (Hana) and her family. Luckily, she has a song my age (he works in a hospital in Prague), and two nieces (a 19-year-old and a 14-year-old), and they all speak very good English. Her mother, husband, other son, sister, and brother-in-law were also there.
Grandma and grandkids

I went to their house at about 11am. Much like Christmas back home, the table was full of food, snacks, cookies, and drinks. Czech grandma also behaved like a very typical Czech grandma by continuously offering me food and drinks. It was ridiculous. Before dinner, we all played board games together. 

Game Time

Around 5pm however, it was up to Pavel and I to start preparing the dinner--Carp. Yup, most Czech families eat Carp and potato salad on Christmas. It is a fairly well-observed tradition in the Czech Republic, as most of my students said that they will have carp for Christmas dinner. Most people also said that it was the only time of the year that they ate it (and many of them don't even like it and opt for fried chicken "schnitzel" instead).
Breading the carp
Preparing the table

Another tradition: under every plate there were a few carp scales. After finishing dinner, one has to take the carp scale and put it in their wallet so that they will make a lot of money the following year.
Dinner

It is another tradition that people absolutely can't leave the dinner table until everyone's finished eating (or else you will have a year of bad luck). Because of this, there was a smaller table next to the dinner table that had all of the drinks on it; that way, nobody had to stand up to get more drinks/food. At one point, the CD of Christmas music that we were listening to started to skip... Pavel had to scoot (in his chair) across the dining room to stop the music because nobody was allowed to stand and shut the music off. Dinner was great. The fish soup was excellent. The carp tasted surpassingly good (a little fishy, but still good), and the potato salad tasted just like my grandmas (aka perfect).

Eating dinner

After dinner, it was my job to take Michal (he's 8) upstairs so he could "show me his toys." However, to our surprise, Baby Jesus came while we were upstairs!!!! (shock) We went downstairs and opened Christmas presents together. (This reminds me... it was odd to my students that most people in the states wake up to presents from Santa in the morning. This is something that I have always taken for granted, as I believe that running downstairs to see presents from Santa is one of the best things in the world. My Czech students have never had this type of experience).
Opening Presents

I am so lucky to have been able to share this Christmas experience with Hana and her family. They treated me as if I was another family member--we laughed, we played games, they made me ate more than I felt that I could ever possibly eat... It was awesome. They even gave me a lot of Christmas presents.

I was given a flask (very useful), a couple t-shirts, wine, more Czech cookies, a Czech cookbook, and a journal. My roommate also gave the the book "Good Soldier Švejk," which is a very famous Czech book that I have been meaning to read for a long time. 
Opening Presents

Initially, I was very nervous about Christmas. I obviously missed my family, but even the month or so leading up to Christmas felt very sad. I remember going shopping with my roommate and his girlfriend and then suddenly thinking, "Whoa... I won't really be able to buy presents for my family... Whoa, I won't even really get presents from my family." It was a pretty crazy feeling.

Luckily, Hana and her family gave me an incredible Christmas. The night even ended in a typical Czech fashion as Pavel, Barča and I went out for drinks at about midnight (yes, the pubs were open... and yes, they were full of people).

And then, the next day, I was invited over to Hana's once again and we had a great lunch (to help work off the hangover).

The picture above does not do the lunch justice. It is one of my favorite Czech meals. There was turkey and pork. Also sauerkraut (which I never really liked until I cam here) and sweet cabbage. Then there was my absolute favorite, knedliky (the closest American equivalent is dumplings). And then there was a gravy. It was amazing.

So yeah. That was my Czech Christmas. After lunch on the 25th, I came home and skyped with my family and friends. Then I prepared for my trip to Barcelona (I left the next day).

This article is taken from the blog of Adam Spanier, 2011-2012 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in the Czech Republic. 

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