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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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Four reasons not to spend Christmas in Czechland

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List posts are the friend of time-poor bloggers.  As today is the day the Czechs celebrate Christmas, it seems reasonable to use this tried and tested format to reflect on some of the advantages of spending the festive season back in Blighty. 

1.  Carp’s Head Soup

While turkey poses its own problems as a festive dish such as how to cook it so it doesn’t end up being hopelessly dry as well as how to serve up the leftovers in new and creative ways, when served up with all the trimmings, at least it looks, well, like a feast.  Carp’s head soup?  Festive?  I don’t think so.  Carp in breadcrumbs accompanied by potato salad may be more palatable but again, it fails the Christmas decadence test as far as I’m concerned.

2. Freedom to indulge in wanton consumerism

Back in November, while I was still in Prague, I noticed something strange was happening – or rather, it wasn’t happening.  It wasn’t just the weather, which was blissfully mild for the time of year.  It was a different kind of absence.  Santa Claus was barely to be seen either in the many shop windows in the centre of Prague or in any of the adverts on our large non-plasma TV screen.  Christmas in Czechland promised to be pleasingly less commercial.  ‘What a relief,’ I sighed to myself.

By December of course the adverts hit the small screen and a knee-high Santa Claus had appeared in the main entrance to Debenhams along with a couple of reindeer.  The thing was though, somehow, it just wasn’t the same.  It  isn’t just the fact that Czechland lacks the impressive array of retail outlets eager to get you to waste your cash on gaudy tat.  It’s the fact that wasting your cash on gaudy tat, as far as Czechman and his family are concerned, is not merely stupid, it is immoral.  I am grateful in one sense that I could get away with spending a mere 60kc a head on gifts for his family but remain gobsmacked that Czechman was actually considering buying a special computer monitor cleaning fluid for his parents.  ‘But it’s practical,’ he told me when I protested that it was perhaps not the best Christmas gift. My point exactly. 

If Christmas is no longer a religious festival then it is an excuse to brighten up the bleak midwinter by celebrating the frivolous, the silly, the tacky, the extravagant.  A cleaning spray is none of these things.

3.  Avoiding the Prague tourist crush

Prague remains, despite the credit crunch, one of Europe’s mini-break hotspots.  Apparently between Christmas and New Year Wencelasus Square and the Old Town are heaving with tourists indulging themselves with mulled wine purchased from one of the little wooden huts that make up the Christmas markets and depressingly sell all the same items you can find in the surrounding tacky gift shops.  I wouldn’t know though, as I’m escaping it all by being here in England.

4. Taking a break from the Czech freezing temperatures

Except that I seemed to have failed on this front.  The first thing I had to buy on arriving was a big pair of wellies to negotiate all the ice and snow.  At least the fact that my flight was delayed for two hours gave me a good excuse to eat a final portion of fruit dumplings. They’re a main course here so you can eat them for your tea, served up with lashings of melted butter, icing sugarand a cheesy substance called quark (tvaroh). Thank god Czech cuisine isn’t all fish head soup…

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The only girl who could spell Czechoslovakia

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November 2009: twenty years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the revolution that was velvet.

 Back in 1989 I was still at primary school.  I think I remember seeing the fall of the wall on TV but perhaps I’ve invented that later.  A boy in our class brought in a fragment of the Berlin wall to show everyone.  I remember being disappointed.  It was just a small bit of grey rock I could have picked up on the wasteground where I used to take my dog for a walk.  The dog was called Teddy.  He was a Bearded Collie and had masses of fur that I didn’t brush often enough so it matted into huge clumps I’d later have to cut off with nail scissors.

My very first Czech-related memory goes back to primary school too.  We had a spelling test and I was the only person who knew how to spell Czechoslovakia. There aren’t many words in English that begin with ‘Cz’. 

I also collected stamps.  Three pages of my album were devoted to Czechland. I still have it.  The ones from exotic places like Equatorial Guinea and Cuba and Malaysia have huge butterflies or angelfish or Disney characters launching space rockets. The Czech ones are less colourful. Some have tiny engravings of castles or a thumb sized portrait of Gottwald. Another one has a zebra; one has a Soviet red-star with a 50 in the middle. There are a couple with pictures of carp on them.  They are all very neatly arranged on the page, pasted on carefully with stamp hinges, those little strips of gummed paper.  I was that kind of child.

 According to Samuel Johnson, no-one but a blockhead wrote but for money.  Or a bloghead.  I’ve been trying to write for money recently which is partly why you’ve heard less from me here.  My recent assignment was to interview an ex-pat novelist whose last book was set in Czechland. I spent some time compiling a thoughtful and intelligent list of questions which I first saved as a Word document and then fired off by email.

‘You haven’t sent those questions yet have you?’ Czechman pipes up.  He’s been using my laptop since the graphics card in his gave up the ghost.

‘Yes, I have.  Why?’

 ‘There are spelling mistakes. Look, you’ve spelt Czechoslovakia wrong.’

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