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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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