The Czech Republic has become a Christmas wonderland! In just one week of the Advent period (the 4 Sundays before Christmas), I have now been to four Christmas markets and witnessed several important traditions leading up to the ultimate tradition of Czech Christmas.
The week started with the beginning of the Advent period in Prague. I met up with my fellow Fulbrighters for a Czech-style Thanksgiving celebration and then we were able to catch the tree lighting in Old Town Square the following evening. Well being able to see the tree is a slight overstatement since the square was packed like sardines with people! At the last moment we pushed through the crowd and watched half of the tree change lights to some music.
Brno and Olomouc, two of the other larger cities in the Czech Republic, had great markets with dozens of stands of food, drink, and traditional Czech items. Some stands at the markets are for foods: trdelnik, langoš, boiled and buttered corn on the cob, warm nuts, crepes, or even roasted pig; warm drinks such as, mulled wine with fruit, alcoholic punch, and honey wine; and Christmas gifts: ornaments, pickled cheeses in jars, sheep wool products, beautiful candles, toys, Advent wreathes, and nativity figures. The Brno market had a huge wooden carved nativity and in Olomouc, Hana and I had a great time ice-skating under my first snowfall of the season!
Even Znojmo has its own Christmas market in both the main and upper squares. The town feels much more alive now with Christmas music playing from loud speakers throughout the day, lights all around, and a stage with performances each day by groups of all ages from town. Luckily, my mom was here last week to catch the Znojmo Christmas tree lighting, which was beautiful, minus a few technical difficulties 🙂 We also had a great week enjoying the hot wine and punch sold at the different stands and going to a local exhibit about traditional Moravian life and Christmas traditions.
As I’m sure you can gather, Christmas is very important for people here in the Czech Republic. From what I can gather so far, it seems to hold the same traditional and family-bonding importance as Thanksgiving for America. In such a small town, in a small country, all of the traditions of the Advent period seem to be fairly similar between families in terms of what kinds of cookies and bread they bake, when they decorate the tree, what they do on the actual Christmas days.
However, the most special parts of my week involved celebrating Hanukkah, both with the other Fulbrighters in Prague and while taking my mom to school to teach two lessons about Hanukkah to the oldest classes. In Prague, one of the other Fulbright grantees hosted a Hanukkah party where we lit the candles, said the blessings, ate kugel and latkes, and all played dreidel. It felt so nice to do these activities, like I would at home, and to share them with a group of Russians, Czechs, and Americans who had never celebrated Hanukkah before. At school, my mom and I taught our lesson about the history, traditions, and deeper meaning of Hanukkah. Not only was this something different for many of my students who have never met a “practicing” Jewish person, but also it showed that there are around 6 million Americans with their own strong traditions who do not celebrate Christmas. I think the coolest parts of the lesson were when we tied the story and traditions of Hanukkah to the Czech Republic. Just like the Maccabees, the Czech people had to struggle and fight to gain independence from oppressive forces like the Nazis and Communists. Even common Hanukkah foods like latkes, kreplach, and jelly doughnuts stem from the cuisine of this region. The focus of the American Culture Club this week was to find the difference between Jewish latkes and Czech bramborák. It was a great time with the students and my mom all cooking together and trying the latkes with the “shocking” combination of both sweet and savory toppings of applesauce and sour cream.
One of my new favorite Christmastime traditions is the Czech celebration of St. Mikuláš (or St. Nicholas). Similar to our myths about Santa Claus, on December 5th, or the eve of St. Mikuláš Day, an angel and devil judge whether children have been good this year. Often, Czech parents give money to people costumed as an angel and devil to come to their house. The children must then sing a carol to be judged whether or not they are good. If they are considered good, the angel gives them some sweets, otherwise the devil carries them to Hell in a sack. In the center of Znojmo, it felt like Halloween with children and adults dressed as angels and devils wandering the streets, often causing small children to scream and cry with fear of the really scarily dressed devils. Luckily I passed the test when the angel and devil came to my house!
Up this week: my final Ples, more Christmas celebrations, and my DAD AND DENISE COMING!!!!