Emma McCullough: Emma's Christmas in Prague

…and boy oh boy, am I excited! I know I spent a long time last week explaining why Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday…but Christmas has a lot going for it, too! My apartment is starting to look rather festive: I have some cute heart-shaped lights hanging in the door to the kitchen, some good Christmas candle action going on, and I bought a really cheap clear glass bowl at Tesco last weekend that is currently holding some of the ornaments that I bought. I haven’t got a Christmas tree, yet, but when I do and it is decorated I’ll post some pictures of the apartment all decked out.

One of the awesome things about being in Europe for Christmas is the Christmas markets. You’d think Americans, masters of all things commercial, would have caught on to this by now, but I guess since we don’t have charming squares to host the markets, they haven’t migrated across the Atlantic, yet. Anyway, if you haven’t experienced central Europe at Christmas, yet you still have two weeks before the extra space in my apartment is taken over by visitors, so get over here and see how awesome it is! 

Musicians playing on stage at the lighting. There should really be more tuba in Christmas music…

Christmas markets vary a fair bit, but the general idea is the same: lots of little stands, here, often in cute little huts, crop up in groups around the city and sell food, crafts, Christmas decorations, gifts, etc. From there, sky’s the limit! As of tonight I have now been to four different markets and they were all different shades of delightful. Staples at most markets include:

Trdelnik stands: That’s tr-del-neek. Try not to choke saying that. This is kind of what would happen if funnel cake and a doughnut had a delicious Czech baby. Basically, you wrap long pieces of dough around a hot roller and cook it until it forms a yummy hollow cylinder of goodness.

The classic version is just topped with cinnamon sugar, but almonds are also quite common as a topping. If you get really lucky, you find one that will smear warm Nutella on the inside. Like this one I got at the market at Náměstí Míru last weekend:

You can bet that didn’t last long… (Photo courtesy John Korba)

Also common in the food department are hot nuts (insert bawdy comment here) – either cinnamon sugar almonds or roasted chestnuts – gingerbread, and sausages.

Mmm…nuts (Photo courtesy John Korba)

To drink, the number one option is going to be svařák (sva-zhaak), which is hot mulled wine. This is not one of my particular favorites, so I can’t offer you a picture, but basically it’s hot wine with spices like cinnamon, ginger, and anise in it. Like the hot cider that you see at Christmas parties in the States, but inherently better since it is alcoholic. I was slightly disappointed to see that here it is served in disposable cups instead of the collectable Christmas mugs one finds in Vienna, but since I’ll be there to get one next weekend, it’s okay!

Beyond the comestibles, there is a lot of variety. The market nearest me at Jiřího z Poděbrad is quite small and has a lot of ready-made things like scarves/hats/gloves and more store-bought goods. The market at Anděl had a lot more hand-made things, like carved wooden goods, candles, and plant matter for decorating.

So far, the best market I’ve really explored is the one at Náměstí Míru, the next big square down from where I live. It’s bigger than either Jiřího z Poděbrad or Anděl and has a good mix of food and stuff. In addition to the items described above, they had a lot more artisanal crafts: bath salts, pottery, handmade paper goods, honey products, and also a healthy selection of candy and other delicious goodies.

Yesterday was the grand opening of the biggest market in town in the Staroměstské náměstí (Old Town Square). This is the main square in all of Prague – the part of town you’re most likely to have seen a picture of – and it also hosts a huge Christmas tree. My friend Laura and I braved insane crowds of Czechs and tourists to attend the lighting of said Christmas tree tonight…and it was well worth the loss of my personal bubble to be around all the excitement and to see the tree be lit for the first time this year. It’s a HUGE live tree and there was a fun light show when they turned it on, choreographed to, of course, Dvořák (because really, why would you use Christmas music when you can use the Slavonic Dances…)!

Staroměstské náměstí just before the tree lighting.

There it is, in all it’s glory!

We really didn’t get a great look at the market part because it was so crowded that we could barely walk, but there were definitely quite a few more booths there than at any of the other markets I’ve been to, and I’m looking forward to going back when there are fewer people so I can explore a bit more. There were at least 3 or 4 trdelnik stands…so we’ll need to do some comparative taste testing there… and also at least two black smiths. It seemed like some of the tourist shops in the area had decamped to Starak (as it’s known colloquially), so it will be interested to see what the general vibe will be there. It was mostly just fun to see the square, which is normally kind of overrun with tourists, filled with people, most of whom were Czechs! And there were so many people there that I wasn’t even that cold, despite that it was, according to weather.com, 28 degrees Fahrenheit when they lit the tree!

Laura and I in front of the tree. This was right before we were almost trampled by about half of Prague.

Today I get to participate in another Czech Christmas tradition: we’ll be singing the Ryba Christmas Mass. This is kind of like the Czech version of Handel’s Messiah — it’s performed very frequently around Christmas in many places. In fact, our director told us a story in rehearsal this week of inviting people to come to a performance he was conducting of this piece. He didn’t see them afterwards, but when they met later they said “Gosh, we really enjoyed the performance. It’s too bad you didn’t get to conduct!” They’d gone to the wrong church, but there was a performance of the same piece taking place at exactly the same time!

Anyway, it’s a fun piece, but rather difficult. The music itself isn’t hard, but it’s written in a pretty uncomfortable vocal range and a lot of it is quite quick…not to mention in Czech! A lot of it feels like a big sadistic Christmas tongue twister. Here’s a sample from the last movement. The first part isn’t so bad, but if you skip ahead to about 3:00 you’ll see what I mean….

This article is taken from the blog of Emma McCullough, 2011-2012 Fulbright Student Fellow in the Czech Republic

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