How do you celebrate Christmas in an atheist country?
It’s surprisingly easy, actually. But let me start with the part that’s difficult for foreigners to grasp.
The population here in Prague is overwhelmingly atheist: Something like 75% at last count. I remember teaching a student once who had a very good vocabulary; who could easily translate the words “placate” and “conundrum—“ and was unable to make any sense of the word “priest.” When he finally got my drift, he waved his hand a little angrily and said, “I’m an atheist—“ as if to say “vocabulary involving religious practices is personally offensive to me– could you just lay off?”
And yet: The Czechs set aside two weeks at the end of the calendar year to wildly celebrate Christmas.
“Why?” is anybody’s guess.
The two things that any good Czech knows about Christmas, are these:
- You need to keep a live carp in your bathtub and
- Your Christmas presents are all delivered by the Baby Jesus.
Once you’ve got that straight, you’re good to go.
I suppose we could begin by discussing the live carp. It fits in nicely with the basic logic of Czech tradition: If you ask a person “Why do you do (fill in name of strange, opaque seasonal practice)?” he will get very surly indeed.
It’s not nice to questions people’s traditions. At best, it’s rude and un-sporting. At worst, it’s downright racist.
From what I’ve been able to glean, very few Czech people enjoy eating carp, which they are happy to tell you, “tastes like mud.” They’re unable to tell you where the tradition of eating it on Christmas Eve even comes from. But right around the 20th or so, large armies of trucks arrive from the city of Trebon; the fish-farming capital South Bohemia. The carp are brought in live, and tanks are set up on many street corners. The carp are huge, the tanks are compact– which means you have enormous squadrons of fish looking very confused and unhappy, swimming in. . .well, no, you could hardly say they are “swimming” at all since there is no room for this. They are merely suspended, dazedly, in water.
The lucky ones get bought, and killed, early.
Some people, though, with “freshness”as an aim, take the damn thing home with them and plop it in the bathtub. (The bath-tube, the Czechs insist on calling it: As if it’s a long hollow appliance you enter from one end, end emerge clean and daisy-fresh on the other.)
The fish lives in the bath-tube and the little kids in the family decide, immediately, that it’s been brought home as a family pet. You can probably guess the rest of the story.
When Harsh Reality hits, the parents have to make a tricky decision: Whether to put a sock in the kid’s mouth and be-head the carp– or, for some of the softies, there are reports of the fish being re-released in the Vltava River They all die there. I forget why. The water temperature, I think.
This is the thing about Czech stories: Even when you have two alternate endings, you usually have a) the sad one, and b) the unbelievably, catastrophically miserable one.
You wonder if it’s actually possible to have a country where nothing measurably good has ever happened. And this is unfair of me. The Czechs are very devoted to watching so-called “fairy tales” on television. Since most of the fairy tales were filmed during the height of Communism, when film stock was poor quality, almost all the characters have a vaguely yellowish skin tone. Even the virgins look jaundiced. The villains look downright grape purple.
The first time I sat through a Christmas fairy tale marathon, I confess I had an unfortunate reaction. I felt like I was trapped in the Brady Bunch kitchen with Alice, smoking medieval-themed reefer. The actors were all en-gelled in the 70’s and stories made no sense, even if you understood Czech.
I could not understand why it made me depressed. Then, about a week after Christmas, I got a call from my young Slovak-born friend Timur. “I’ve been watching fairy tales all week,” he said. “I want to kill myself.” It was a great moment in the sense that I felt vindicated.
Let’s just say for grins, though, that I can deal with eating the be-headed family carp and watching acid-green princesses being courted by grape-men on TV– there is still the issue of the Visit From the Baby Jesus.
Very, very, VERY tricky, friends, to discuss with a reasonably well-educated Czech.
“How exactly does the Baby Jesus. . . travel?” is usually the first question I ask. (One sometimes sees graven images of a diaper-clad toddler with a sack over his shoulder, poking his head in a family’s door. I won’t say this is “child labor” since Jesus was not, strictly speaking, mortal, and so, probably had strength reserves, even as a baby, that most of us common gym-rats can only dream of, even on high-creatine days.)
The answer to the question above is that micro-Jesus does not “travel,” exactly, in the same way that the Guy with the Sleigh and the Reindeer has to do. Sometime on the evening of December 24, when the children have been taken for a short walk, or otherwise distracted, there is suddenly heard the distinct ringing of a bell. . .The children go wild. “Prijel Jezisek!” they squeal: “Baby Jesus has come!”
They run back into the house and find their presents nicely arrayed– and mentally flog themselves for having missed– again—the marquee event of the holiday season.
Now, of course, you must see many parallels here between the experience of Czech and, say, American kids. There is deception, sniggering, and sleight-of-hand abounding; the gullibility of the kids being the warm-the-heart factor that so many jaded adults live for. (“Oh, to be that innocent again!”)
And, also, there’s the eventual coming-of-age– when children grow up and stop believing in pixies. Jezisek stops making his rounds when you are 7 or 8, I’m told.
The Czech reaction to the “spectre” of Santa Claus, though, is quite interesting. “We don’t like him,” they tell me baldly. “He’s a bad precedent.” (I mean, they put up with the dimples of Colonel Sanders pretty damn quick, if you ask me; as early as 1991.)
I asked my very intelligent student Marek about Santa Claus and he got a look on his face as if he’d eaten worm-shot fruitcake.
“They’re trying to take away our natural Czech traditions,” he said in an unusually plaintive tone:
“They’re trying to replace Jezisek.”
“And by ‘they,’ you mean. . .”
“The RUSSIANS!” Marek said, to my surprise.
It turns out that the Russians have a Santa-like entity in their cultural stable: DED MOROZ, which translates as Frozen Grandpa.
Sometime in 1968, when the Russians came in tanks to oppress the Czechs, they brought Frozen Grandpa with them.
And when I picture that Big Chilly Siberian Dude arm-wrestling with the squalling half-naked Baby Jesus in the gift department at Tesco, it’s not a pretty picture.
Personally, when I give gifts, I simply write, “From Stephanie.” I sometimes add “Happy New Year.”
And in general, no one gets offended.