Monthly Archives: December 2010

Christmas in Czechland Part II: A Beginner’s Guide

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So I’ve survived my first Czech Christmas. I didn’t fall out with Czechman or choke to death on a stray carp bone.  In fact, I actually quite enjoyed myself. 

Anyway, I have decided to compile a handy beginner’s guide to Christmas here in Czechland for other foreigners who may decide to follow in my footsteps in 2011.

1. Erm, when is Christmas again?  The first important point to remember is that like many other European nations, Czechs celebrate Christmas on the 24th December.  This means that you will get your presents a day early (hooray!) but it won’t feel like it. Why? Because unlike back in England you won’t get to open your gifts straight after breakfast but will be forced to wait until the evening.  This anomaly may lead to you experiencing a weird sense of ‘giftlag’.

2. What’s for dinner?  For those of you who weren’t paying attention to my last post, the centrepiece of the Czech table on Christmas day is a fish, not a bird.  The tradition Czech Christmas spread is fried carp in breadcrumbs accompanied by potato salad. 

It was tasty enough.  The main issue in my view was that there was no dessert.  No Christmas pudding!  Not that I actually like Christmas pudding all that much – it’s true what the French say, that the lardy combination of dried fruit and brandy sits in your stomach like a lump of concrete – but hey, Christmas comes but once a year and I want to feel like I’ve overindulged. Still, it’s another excuse to put another handful of those delicious homemade Christmas biscuits (cukroví) in your mouth.  My personal favourite is the one with the rum in.  Or perhaps one of those chocolate hearts.  Mmm…

3. The Czech are crackers about crackers. When you’re foreign, you do your best to suck up to the in-laws at all times.  At least I do anyway.  My contribution to Czechmanovi’s Christmas dinner was not edible and really went off with a bang. Literally.  None of Czechman’s family had ever seen a cracker before. They loved them. 

Although the paper crowns were only worn for five minutes and I’m not sure exactly what they made of the prizes – a small plastic Christmas tree anyone? No? What about a fortune-telling cellophane fish? – there was plenty of laughing and smiling. Any humour which may have been present in the jokes, however, was well and truly lost in translation.

4. There’s no such thing as Santa Claus. Don’t worry, I’m not trying to deliberately ruin the magic of Christmas for you.  The thing is, while the Russian Děda Mráz and American Santa Claus may have tried to take his place, the great honour of delivering festive gifts in Czechland remains the task of Ježíšek. 

Who exactly is Ježíšek? It’s hard to say exactly as he’s invisible but it is reported that he’s the baby Jesus himself.  After Christmas dinner, the grown ups go into the living room, open the window and in he flies, leaving presents for all the family under the Christmas tree. Only if you’ve been good though.

5. The present opening part.  Once Ježíšek has made his delivery, the present opening part of the day can begin. It takes place around the Christmas tree: so far, so similar.  However, instead of taking it in turns to open their gifts, the Czechs just hand out everything in one go.  This means that it’s almost impossible to watch the expression on the face of the recipient of your present.  As (at least hopefully) a big part of the pleasure of Christmas comes from the giving as well as receiving, this did take away a little bit of the magic for me. 

There were other differences too.  No Queen’s speech of course but I’d rather watch a Czech fairytale in any case.  It was also a sober affair: I mean literally.  In our family at least, Christmas is yet another excuse to get exceedingly drunk. Everyone is the wrong side of tipsy by 3pm; in Czechman’s family not a drop of alcohol was consumed all day.

What were the highlights of Ježišek’s offerings?  Wooly knitted socks and a leopard print wearable blanket. Can you guess which is the practical Czech gift and which is the tongue-in-cheek English one?


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Christmas in Czechland Part I: The Carp Sellers

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How can you tell Christmas is coming when you live in Czechland? 

The appearence of the carp sellers. 

No need to consult Delia Smith on how best to deal with a 15kg turkey you know you needn’t have bothered buying: in Czechland, the centrepiece of the festive spread is fish and potato salad.  Or if you’re really lucky, fish head soup.

The two gentlemen in the photo above are from a village near Brno. The one on the right comes to Prague every year to sell his wares; they both had to sleep in the car to keep an eye on their goods. I tried to engage them in witty banter or rather, grammatically inaccurate smalltalk.  Disappointingly, neither of them seemed that interested in the fact that I’m an Anglicanka or that I find all this choose your own carp business very exotic.  Oh well.  They did agree to pose for the photo. 

I hope the hammer is for dispatching the fish rather than attacking passers-by.

Normally I have already flown to England before the carp sellers set up their stalls so seeing all this fishy produce on offer on the streets of Prague has made me rather snap happy.  I know someone in the comments asked for more pictures of statues covered in snow. Here’s a fish head instead.

The carp swim around in the huge buckets you can see behind the table covered in blood and guts: you choose the one which catches your eye and then either get your friendly carp seller to chop its head off or take it home and keep it in the bath until the big day and do the gory business yourself. 

On the way back to The Village, we stopped at a small town en route to meet with one of Czechman’s former schoolmates (see! I used that word!).  He pulled out his mobile phone and proudly showed us a picture of the three carp he has swimming around in the tub.  Not for much longer. Christmas Day in Czechland is less than 24 hours away.  You will, of course, receive a full report right here.  For now, another amusing tale of my efforts to communicate in Czech.

‘What do you have for dinner on Christmas Day in England?’ asked Czechman’s mum while we were decorating the Christmas tree together.

‘Klokan’, I replied. 

Laughter ensued. The word I wanted, of course, was ‘krocan’.  The only ‘klokany’ in Europe are in zoos. No doubt just as tasty as their feathered wattle-necked friends.  As for the carp, I’ll let you know.


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Girl in Winter Wonder (Czech) land

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‘So what are you going to write about this time?  Snow in Prague?’ said Czechman a moment ago as he came to take away my empty mug of tea.

‘Umm, yes,’ I reply.

‘No-one will be interested.’

Oh well.  I have to break the silence somehow.

Everyone knows that eskimos have a hundred different words for snow.  Its only since living here in Prague that I begin to understand why.  There’s the fresh, powdery stuff that you can kick up in the air like walking through those tiny little balls of polystyrene.  Then there’s the kind that’s crunchy when you walk on it.  You can make neat footprints in both. 

Its very satisfying.  Those footprints are small acts of defiance. It might be minus 5 degree but I am here.  I am alive.

However, snow doesn’t just freeze, it also melts.  And then turns brown or black and freezes again.  I am not friends with this kind of snow.  It is out to get me and make me look silly.  Its Eskimo name would be Girl in Czechland slayer. This is the reason I wear my hiking boots at all times. 

I don’t care what I may have said about fashion.  I want to be vertical.

In my desperate mission to stay upright I find myself walking close to the walls but there lies another danger: killer icicles.  These icy stalactites have made their home on a shop front in Dejvicka.  Imagine the damage one of those could do if it fell on your head. 

‘They don’t look very big,’ says Czechman peering over my shoulder at the screen. ‘Can’t you get a different photo?’

‘What are you talking about? They’re huge!’ I reply in a shrill tone.

What is he talking about?  To an Englishwoman – or this one anyway –  those icicles look menancing.

Winter here means business. There’s not much in the way of  fog or smog or damp or drizzle but that’s a good thing.  Czech weather may be many things but it is not ambivalent.  The same might be said of Czechs themselves.

The novelty of watching snow fall hasn’t worn off just yet so long as I can watch it from the window of a nice warm – not overheated -room inside. However corny it seems, it still makes me feel like I’m in a snow dome. Wikipedia says that they have been used in modern cinema to evoke childhood nostalgia.  I may enjoy raising an arched eyebrow at life but even a tough old cookie like me cannot resist the lure of a little fairytale magic sometimes. 

I’m disappointed there aren’t more women in giant fur hats though. And headbands. Why focus only on keeping your ears warm when twenty percent of your body heat is lost through the top of your head?  They make as much sense as socks with sandals.

This Christmas will be the first I will have spent in Czechland and the first with Czechman.  We will of course be heading to the village next week which will hopefully mean plenty of time to blog and plenty of material to blog about.  Will Girl in Czechland break a leg skiing down the local slope (or should I say hill) or choke to death on a rogue carp bone? What will the Village People make of plum crumble? Watch this space.

P.S  Apologies to anyone still reading this for not having posted for so long.  Or having replied to your (generally very kind) emails.  I’ll endeavour to be better on this front now I’m feeling (a bit) better, I promise.


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