Baby Jesus and the Brandy: A Czech Christmas Tale Pt. 1

Christmas appears to be the one holiday that everyone has at least some kind of response to. For some it’s a wistful memory, some bitter hatred, or even an (often over-)emphasized ambivalence, be they theist or atheist, consumers or retail slaves, or be they human or ancient lizardfolk alike. It’s wildly inclusive if one looks at the whole scope of who discusses it, so I suppose it succeeds in bringing everyone together… at least in some tortured manner. The traditions and norms of Christmas aren’t universal truths, however. My “Christmas” is nothing alike that of a friend’s Christmas, nor is it likely the same for anyone outside of the US.

Christmas was never religious for me. Santa was Christmas. Of course, I wasn’t ignorant of the whole “Christ” bit in Christmas, but it seemed always secondary to my “beliefs,” amusing as that may be in the big picture of things. Stockings, the tree, opening gifts early on the 25th, cookies and milk by the tree, the whole nine yards. In my family, we’ve always had this tradition of receiving a mandarin orange in our stockings, something that started with my parents’ families receiving oranges back when tropical fruits were much more rare in the winter months. Santa “brought” them oranges even though they would have been outrageously expensive or decrepit in the shops. The family I recently stayed with for Christmas would go out with a packet of carrots to string up for the woodland critters and vagabond vegans (vegabonds?). In Spain, I was treated to a very nice, but comparatively quiet, Navidad. If memory also serves right, there also is a higher religious importance still attached to Christmas in Spain than within the US (or at the very least from a commercial perspective, if we want to be more specific). In the Czech Republic, it seems to continue in the more religious way, but in a manner I never would have expected.

Here in Czech they celebrate “Vánoce (pronounced more-or-less like vanotse).” It’s celebrated on the 24th, and Santa is in relatively short supply. You can find Santa stuff, sure, but he’s usually found in his more classical guise of “Svatý Mikuláš (St. Nicholas, see?).” The Coca-Cola red-suit commercialized Santa hasn’t caught on as much here. St. Nick still gets a chance to strut his stuff, but it’s not flanked by an elf and Rudolph, but with an angel and a demon to judge the children of the land. And it’s on December 5th-6th. Not quite Christmas, the last I checked. So St. Nick rolls with his winged companions and judges whether the respective children have been naughty or nice that year (it’s almost as if it’s comparative to some kind of system of judging naughtiness from niceness… maybe in some kind of list?), giving sweets to the nice ones, and coal to the naughty ones.

On Vánoce, there’s something of the same feeling as when Santa comes, but with about four times as much stress for the parents, as the miracle of the presents occurs in the middle of the bloody evening, not overnight. And it’s not Santa, bounding jollyfully (and it’s Santa so he gets his own broken adverb) down the chimney, but “Ježíšek (approximately pronounced Yeshishek)” or, Baby Jesus. Yes, little swaddled baby Jesus is the benefactor of the gifts on Vánoce, and he comes shortly after dinner. Work out the logistics of that one, parents.

It’s nice, in its own way. Shopping centres are still packed, tourists inundate the streets, but there isn’t as much of the heavy-handed commercialization as found in the US. Damn near close, but not. Quite. There. Aside from the Vánoce party I went to, I have heard perhaps, at most, three to five English Christmas carols. The relief to my mental well-being is unspeakable. One of the benefits of not fully-understanding a language is the ability to tune out almost anything you hear as white noise. It’s often easy to tell when it’s a Christmas carol, but it just becomes a melodious hum vaguely buzzing in the back of your head. Same goes for obnoxious conversations in public transportation. Don’t want to hear the minutiae of someone’s bodily functions? Bzzzzzzz.

Fairy tales are also something of a different beast here in the Czech Republic, with some coming from classic folk tales, but many of the most popular films were produced from the 60’s-80’s, and they were processed as (more or less) amusingly through the communist media machine. None that I saw were about Jesus or anything Biblical, but magic and whimsy were still abound, even if slightly eye-rolling in its obvious emphasis on community and communistic ideals (from what I’ve been told, of course, I haven’t found any with subtitles). Even if they can apparently be a little obvious with their intent, the stories are just fun to watch. Dated, sure, but quaint and amusing all the same. Most deal with royalty and disenfranchised princes/princesses, or a scrappy peasant or soldier saving the day, or any of these characters bungling something and learning life lessons as they fix the mess they made. It’s all really common, relatable stuff. None of it is terribly Christmas-y, but it has the right feel to it. The spirit of Christmas, if you will. They pass in my book, at the very least. The one I particularly liked (and remembered) was “Tři Veteraní (or “Three Veterans,” as it may be a little obvious to point out). I thoroughly enjoyed watching it, even if I understood 5-10% of the dialogue. It was purely fun and interesting to watch, and I think there was snow, so it’s instantly Christmas-approved viewing. I just need to find it with subtitles, if such a thing exists.

I’ll continue the rest in the next part, with foodstuffs and what I actually did for this, my first Vánoce.

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