Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas traditions in Prague...

Here is an article from today's Prague Daily Monitor that is written by Emily Prucha, an American who married a Czech (Radek) and now lives in Prague. By coincidence, we bought our 2003 Ford Mondeo wagon from Emily and Radek last year (it has been a fine car by the way). I just recently doscovered that she is a regular writer for the Monitor. In her article today she gives a primer on Christmas for locals here in Prague.

Christmas in Prague
By Emily Prucha / Prague Daily Monitor / Published 21 December 2007

This will be the second year we’ve celebrated Christmas in the Czech Republic, and it’s the first year Anna Lee is old enough to participate in the festive preparations. Since we alternate between spending Christmas here and in the States, Radek’s Czech traditions will take precedence this year including kapr (carp) for dinner and a bell after dinner on the 24th announcing that Ježišek (baby Jesus) has brought the presents.

During our first Czech Christmas, the carp was the gossip of the season. No one back in America could believe we had a real carp swimming in our bathtub on the afternoon of the 24th; admittedly, I found it hard to believe myself. Although I knew Radek would serve carp, I had no idea he would buy a live one and leave it in the bathtub. Incidentally, he waited until late Christmas morning to buy it because he knew I wouldn’t want to give up my morning shower to a fish. Having waited until the last minute, all the seasonal carp stands were already shut down, and he had to scour the supermarkets for a live one. Anna was just turning one, so she was thrilled that there was a fish swimming where she usually took a bath and still too young to understand that the live fish was to become dinner. Long after Christmas she would toddle to the bathroom to peer in the already empty tub.

Over the years, we’ve tried to “educate” both families about the respective Christmas traditions in the other country. The first Christmas we were in the US, Radek tried to fix fried carp and his grandfather’s traditional potato salad. After searching grocery stores without success for carp and the right kind of šunka (ham) for the salad, Radek ended up serving fried catfish and a slightly altered version of the potato salad. My parents enjoyed the meal, but thought the menu was more befitting a 4th of July fish-fry than a winter holiday. As for Radek’s family's reaction to my vegetable casserole, I’m afraid the comments Děda made are not fit for print. In the end, Děda conceded that the taste itself wasn’t bad, but the sight of all the food mixed together in the dish didn’t look like “food”.

Anna Lee’s birthday is also on the 24th and my parents will arrive on the 27th to spend New Year’s with us, so there is a mounting to-do list: a birthday cake to bake, presents to wrap, cleaning to do, and this year I've decided not fight about whether we have carp and potato salad or turkey and broccoli casserole.

To get ready for the holiday, we packed Anna up on Friday to spend the weekend with her grandmother Nada. Anna could help Nada bake Vánoční cukroví (Christmas sweets), and we used the few days without Anna to clean the house, shop for last minute presents and buy a tree. Anna was delighted. Not only would she get to have a lollipop after every meal and get her fingers and toes painted (treats/activities banned at home), she would also get to finish the gingerbread “boys” she’d started with Nada the previous weekend.

On Saturday morning, I woke up with a sore throat and raspy voice, which kept me home and left Radek to do the bulk of our last-minute shopping. He called me from the Zličín shopping center saying, sadly, he was stuck in a parking lot traffic jam. Six hours later, he returned home in a surprisingly good mood with a few things from IKEA and several bottles of liquor. Although he hadn’t found all the items he wanted, he ended up bringing home Jameson Irish whisky with a complementary flask (for our Austrian ski trip) and Baileys caramel crème (for coffee), enough to designate the trip a success. We already have homemade slivovice (the pear variety) from our neighbor and traditional plum slivovice from Radek’s work colleague, so along with svařák (hot mulled wine), and a few beers, we should have all alcohol-related drink requests covered. Not that alcohol is important to Czechs, right?

Although we’ll celebrate Christmas in Prague, Nada will join us, bringing at least part of the meal in her suitcase. Even if it wasn’t a holiday, Nada always comes laden with food (cooked and uncooked) despite our assurances that there are grocery stores in Prague also.

The first year, it was tough for me to step aside and leave all the cooking to Nada and Radek, especially since I like the holiday atmosphere in the kitchen. But fitting 3 adults in our tiny kitchen is a logistical challenge, so I’m happy to take my turn on kid duty this year.

Every holiday spent with immediate and extended families can be chaotic and stressful no matter how dear the kin is. Add two or more languages, food choices and the cultural differences that correspond, and the tension mounts. Although Radek and I try our best to respect the other’s holiday tradition, we invariably touch on sensitive topics wherever we are. While I can’t believe that Czechs don’t have stockings, Radek doesn’t understand why Americans tell children that Santa comes down the chimney. That’s why for us, it’s better to keep our traditions flexible, at least now, while our children are still young. A little more Czech this year, a little more American next year, either way, our children are getting the idea that holiday time is family time, and that is, by far, the most important point.

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