Through Brno: The Christmases I have known
Spoiler alert: this article deals with Christmas traditions. It may not be suitable for the young and innocent or the older and young at heart.
Despite the fact that both of my parents left Czechoslovakia as young adults, there wasn’t a lot of Czech influence in my childhood. We lived in America. We needed to speak English to advance in school or work. And the television rarely mentioned Europe, let alone Czechoslovakia.
The extent to which Czech was part of my childhood was that my parents would speak Czech to each other, we had svíčková and vepřo-knedlo-zelo for Sunday dinners, and my mother would point out every Czech name she saw in the closing credits of movies.
That was different come December because we didn’t open presents on Christmas morning like all of our neighbors: we celebrated a Czech Christmas.
And, perhaps because my childhood Christmases had always been somehow different, I feel like even as an adult in Brno my Christmas experiences are more like sitcoms that every year provide some of variation on the same theme: too much alcohol and people from random countries in decidedly non-Christmas settings.
I am sure that your expat experiences have that extra spice, too. Please share.
The American-Czech Hybrid Christmas
My family had Santa Claus. It would have been impossible to not succumb to the marketing and publicity power of American culture in order to have a Czech Baby Jesus deliver our presents. (I literally did not know about Ježíšek and the fact that he delivers presents to Czech kids until I moved to Brno in middle age.) But, even with Santa, we used Czech traditions like fish and potato salad for dinner and opening presents on Christmas Eve.
Czech Christmas cookies were at the center of our family tradition. My mother baked sheets of them every year and it is family lore that teachers argued over who would teach the next Zalubil kid so that they would get the lion’s share. We also delivered them to our friends and neighbours on Christmas Eve. My father would take the four kids around the neighborhood and my mother stayed behind “to finish cooking dinner” (read: take the presents from hiding places and place them under the Christmas tree). We went from house to house, sometimes going inside for hot chocolate and sometimes bumping into a pizza delivery guy because, for Americans, Dec. 24 is like the day before your birthday.
Eventually, the cookies were all delivered, and we would head back home. Unlike every other time we entered the house, we did not go through the front door (because that led directly into the living room and the recently presented Christmas tree). Instead, we went through the garage. And, because the bathroom was on the other side of the living room, we didn’t wash our hands or comb our hair for dinner. Normally we got yelled at for these transgressions. Something was fishy.
Christmas Eve dinner was Czech-like: fish soup, fried fish, and potato salad. However, Czech carp is very different from the American varieties, which are mostly decorative and orange and live in golf course ponds. American carp would be bony and disgusting to eat. Instead, we had fried, breaded salmon. We lived near Seattle, after all.
After dinner, it was time to eat Christmas cookies and wait for my mother to finish washing the dishes. I have since come to understand that Baby Jesus rings a bell when he leaves a home. We had Santa but we needed a similar mechanism. My father used his clock radio and, in various years, we were called to the tree by the music alarm (Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” one year) or the buzzer.
When I was old enough to know the “truth”, I, as the oldest child, stayed behind to help my mom. The first year was actually a really heady experience; I remember feeling proud because I had reached some level of maturity. Our traditions actually influenced our friends’ families, too. They instituted the Zalubil rule: each child could open one present on Christmas Eve, but the rest on Christmas morning.
Our consolation to American traditions was to have stockings on Christmas morning. We often got lottery tickets. We never won.
Now, as the father of a little girl, I need to figure out what to do for our family Christmas tradition. We plan to have a wooden ornament for every Christmas of my daughter’s life, but should Ježíšek or Santa come to our home? Zoe will hear about Ježíšek from her immediate surroundings here in Brno, but she will also hear about Santa from her cousins when they talk on Skype. What do you suggest? How do you balance traditions?
Expat Christmases in Brno
When you live far away from family, like, for example, when you are an expat, Christmas can be great (with new friends from different cultures) or terrible (with no one except a bowl of heavily buttered popcorn and downloaded movies).
One year my friends invited me to a hybrid Mexican / Indian, extra-spicy Christmas – habaneros, chili peppers, and curry. Another year was French, with several courses and an amazing chocolate mousse. One Christmas Day I had several assorted friends over at my place for soft tacos and beer. Another time I ended up in a smoky bar on Christmas Eve as a friend spun records and hosted a rap contest for Czech teenagers.
One Christmas Eve was spent with my future-wife and a bunch of her friends and a lot of beer. A bit later, on Boxing Day, I met my future mother-in-law for a classic svíčková dinner; that was stressful enough, but finding flowers to bring when the florists are closed for several days proved to be the real challenge. In the end, I had calla lilies soaking in the bathtub for two days.
I am sure that you have your own Christmas stories. Are they all good or do you have some tough ones? How do you mix your cultural traditions with Czech traditions? Did you ever lower your defenses at a company Christmas party? Does Santa Claus play a role in your celebrations or do you revile him and everything that he stands for?
I would love to hear your thoughts and stories. Please share them.