Living in a foreign country is a strange experience. On the one hand, it is incredibly eye-opening and can introduce you to a world otherwise unknown or unavailable. On the other hand, it makes you romanticize your own cultural background (let’s not go into diasporic studies, imaginary homelands and so on) as well as long for what your old everyday life used to offer. The truth is, the grass is always greener on the other side and believe me, as much as everyone who is from another country moans about going back home, after 7 days there they just want to be on a return flight back to London.
Having said that, there is one time of the year when I miss my country the most and that is CHRISTMAS. Partly, I miss drinking our version of egg-nog (this is a true Czech phenomena) with my Mum while we decorate every inch of our flat with various Christmas decorations. Meanwhile my Dad pretends to care where we place our several Christmas trees (and yes, they each have a different theme) or whether we should have bought more garlands (the answer is always no, but why would he start an argument with two Christmas weirdos?).
For a country that is 95% Atheist, we have the most traditional Christmas and it all starts with St Nicholas Day on the 6th of December. This is the pre-Christmas torture to keep children in line if they want a chance to redeem themselves before Christmas Day. You leave a stocking outside your window and if you were good, then St Nicholas leaves you treats, if not you are left with potatoes, onions and coal. In addition to this, children are further taunted by St Nicholas, an Angel and Devil who go from flat to flat to give more treats to the good children and threaten the naughty ones with an eternity in hell. Usually you get away with reciting a poem to make up for everything. Also, you are dependent on how drunk the trio are by the time they got to your home.
Every Sunday for the four advent weeks, we light one candle on the wreath and celebrate Christmas on the 24th December. We cut apples in half to find a star or a cross (a star means joy in the next year, a cross means unpleasant times) and we make decorations out of tangerines and dried apples. People do not pour lead to find out their future so much anymore, but there are those who will not give up this tradition. The 24th December is also full of preparations for the Christmas dinner which consists of carp (probably the heaviest fish known to man) and potato salad. There are some families which keep the poor fish in their bathroom for a couple of days before serving it. We’ve done this once. The fish was in our tub for half a day, I cried the whole time and wouldn’t eat, so my parents decided to avoid this tradition from that point on. Everyone has a scale from the fish under their plate for good luck and truth be told, you’ll know a Czech person if you see someone who has a fish scale in their wallet. Don’t question it, just accept us for the unique people we are.
I almost forgot about the golden pig. Yes, you read that right! To try and control people’s intake of food, there is a myth that if you do not eat all day on the 24th (drinking is allowed, this is Eastern Europe after all) you will see a golden pig, which will bring you luck and lots of money for years to come. Needless to say, most people give in, as there is food on every surface of your house, so no pig has ever been spotted.
We do not have a traditional Christmas dessert, but we have traditional sweets prepared months in advance that we eat throughout December. You love it the first week and eat it out of habit the other two and in the end everyone is stuffed and even people visiting do not want any. It is of course a great competition to show off how many kinds of sweets you can make.
After Christmas dinner, the whole family hides in another room while BABY JESUS (yes, baby Jesus, not a Catholic or a religious person in sight) delivers the gifts you wished for and rings a bell. It takes a person years to figure out why their mum and dad always had to excuse themselves while waiting for the presents.
The 25th of December is known as ‘The Divine Feast,” which is quite ironic, since everyone is absolutely full from the day before and it usually involves dragging the family to visit relatives. The 26th of December is St Stephens day, which you spend with friends and have a small Christmas celebration and grown up gift giving. This day involves wine and endless moaning about having to spend so much time with your family over the holidays (even though you secretly enjoy the full fridge, constant attention and essentially being forbidden to help because you would only mess it up and ruin all your mum’s effort).
It seems obvious now, but looking back, Christmas was an extremely magical time full of homely food and mulled wine being considered a soft drink.
With no disrespect to Christmas sandwiches and mince pies, Czech Christmas is a truly special December-long promenade of joy and it’s AMAZING! It’s the one time of the year when even the most cynical of people join in the overall merriment and as much as I love Disney, the constant stream of old-school Czech fairytales turns me into mush every year.
It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.Back to Journal