A (not-very) special Czech Christmas

As the last tiny fireballs shot into the tree, marking the end of this bizarrely belated Christmas celebration, my Czech friend’s father, Ladia, looked at me and giggled nervously.

Was he happy we didn’t burn down this bone-dry pine tree in their living room? Or was there something else I was missing. Did he know this was it–that I would be emancipating myself from this family and never be back to ease the misery of their lives? I set my deadened sparkler down on the formica coffee table and turned away from the dry Christmas tree, quickening my pace toward the front door where my jacket was hanging. I’m never coming back here, I thought. Never.

How did I get to the point where I walked out on a family that took me in for the last and final time? This was the end of my most bizarre Christmas I ever spent. The most bizarre Christmas I ever spent in late January, that is.

Lenka, a 22-year-old college student living in Prague, and a friend of a friend, had arranged a short-term apartment for me when I arrived in the Czech capital for a long stay.

Which is why I didn’t mind going to Lenka’s parents’ house in north Bohemia my first weekend in the Czech Republic. Besides that, Lenka insisted I go. Usti nad Labem, which, translated into English, means “Usti above the Elbe River,” only sounds romantic. During the three-hour ride north from Prague, we passed ruined castles perched on high cliffs and a myriad of small towns whose main feature was a bulbous Baroque-era spire. Then we arrived in Usti, where post-World-War II-era buildings–tall, concrete block apartment structures, the architectural equivalent of Soviet realism–dominate the city the way spires do in Prague. Unlike the Czech capital, Usti didn’t escape World War II without damage. A few modest Baroque and neo-Gothic churches and a small 19th-century opera house dot the city, wedged between drab, functionalist shopping centers with relief sculptures of proud, barrel-chested workers. The wide river and surrounding green hills could not save Usti from looking like the love child of Dubuque and some horrible Soviet’s vision of paradise.

But Lenka and her family were proud of their hometown. Her parents met us at the train station and immediately whisked us off on a driving tour in their clunky late-’70s orange Skoda. We gawked at the city’s chemical plant (where Lenka’s father, Ladia, worked) drove over the river several times, and stopped to admire the skyline of “commie condos.”

Once inside their boxy apartment, I was immediately guided into the living room, where, over tea, Ladia chronicled his English language studies for me–for hours. Somewhere between “right” and “uh-huh” as well as several variations on the I’m-still-listening-to-you head nod, I took the time to study the décor. Adhering to the glossy formica-meets-enclosed-glass-display-case school of design, this was a relic from the past era. Socialist furniture is, like its architecture and attitudes, impersonal and cold. Still, Czechs do their best to make their homes feel warm, often exhibiting fresh flowers as well as large collections of books, most of which are classics, from Homer to Dante to the obligatory Czech scribes: Kafka, Kundera, Hrabel, and Klima.

“It wasn’t practical to learn English,” Ladia said, blowing on a steaming cup of tea before taking a sip. “During the old regime, we couldn’t travel to English-speaking countries, so besides Russian–which we were forced to study–most Czechs learned German.” Ladia, who could have passed as a look-a-like for former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, was different. He studied English in secret, mulling over grammar books and dictionaries late into the night in the privacy of his living room. He paused and smiled. “But I knew. I knew that someday–“

Just then Lenka’s mom, Edita, who was assiduously making lunch, yelled something from the kitchen. Lunch was served.

Later, we were all sitting around in the living room listening to Ladia again. The conversation seemed like it was happening in slow motion. With each word, the second hand on the clock ticked slower and my eyes grew heavier. Ladia was just trying to entertain us (as well as practice his English), but whether we were talking about the inner workings of the chemical plant, life under communism, or his fascination with birds indigenous to Central Europe, I felt like flinging myself from their twelfth-floor balcony.

Still, in retrospect, that first visit to Usti wasn’t so bad. At best, it was a crash course in Czech life and culture. At worst, it was a two-day lesson on birds and the old regime. The following week Lenka invited me to Usti again, and though I still felt indebted to her, I declined, saying I’d go the next weekend instead. She looked disappointed, but didn’t protest my decision.

When Lenka roped me into another Usti visit two weeks later, the experience was almost the same: Ladia cornered me in the living room while Edita spent most of her time in the kitchen preparing food. Before we departed for the train station on Sunday night, Edita proclaimed that she was my “Czech mother,” and this family was my “Czech family.” Everyone rejoiced.

“See you next weekend,” Edita yelled as we made our way to the elevator. Then she slammed the door before I could say anything.

On the way home that night, Lenka began to open up. “I don’t like my family,” she said, the carriage packed with twenty-somethings who, like Lenka, were obliged to come home every weekend. “In fact, we all don’t like each other. That’s why my brother never comes home–even though he’s supposed to.”

It was true. Martin had moved as far as he could away from his family–to Ostrava, a massive industrial town even uglier than Usti in the far eastern part of the country. The one weekend we were both in Usti, it was painfully obvious that he hated being home; he sulked around the apartment for two days acting like an alienated fifteen year old and did his best to ignore the latest foreigner that Lenka had dragged home.

As the train reached the suburbs of Prague, Lenka confessed, “When you come to Usti with me on the weekends everything is okay. The attention is on you, the guest, and not on how much we quietly loathe one another. The tension is gone.”

I felt sorry for Lenka, but I was beginning to loathe her family too. Besides, I didn’t want another family–I already had one 6,000 miles away.

I stopped going for a while, despite Lenka’s aggressive tactics of persuasion, which included stopping by my apartment a couple times a week. She was the only person who knew where I lived, so when I’d hear the buzzer, I’d hit the floor. She knew I was home, evidenced by the fact that she’d keep her finger pressed on the buzzer for long periods of time, terrorizing my ears. After a few minutes, she’d resort to intermittent buzzing like a school fire drill. Finally, she’d slowly wade backwards down the street, her eyes perpetually fixed on my third-floor apartment window.

One day, the buzzer going non-stop for three or four minutes, I finally gave in and went down to the door.

Lenka actually looked surprised that I’d come down. “If you can’t come to Usti this weekend, that’s fine,” she said. “But please come for Christmas in two weeks. Please.”

I was less startled by her pleading and more surprised by her choice to (un-ironically) combine a black, eye-brow-raising miniskirt with a Miami Vice-like hot pink blazer. I had already anticipated a Christmas invitation, and, rather than just telling her straight out that I never wanted to come there again, I had decided to go far away: I’d bought a train ticket to Florence for the week of Christmas. I bit my lower lip, took a deep breath through my nostrils and told her the news.

“What?!” Lenka barked out. “What are we going to do?” she asked rhetorically. She stood in front of me, her mouth ajar. “Well then, I hope you’re at least going to come this weekend,” she said, probably sounding exactly like her mom when Lenka made the rare announcement that she couldn’t make it home.

“I’m going stay here in Prague to hang out with some friends from work.”

“Friends from work?” Lenka said incredulously. “You don’t even like the people you work with.”

I didn’t respond, choosing instead to focus on a triumvirate of chain-smoking drunks who were standing in front of a pub. Lenka’s stare pierced me.

“Okay…,” she said, taking a few steps backward toward the street and pointing her index finger at me, “but my mom is going to be very upset.”

Despite communism’s disdain for all things Jesus-like, Czech Christmas traditions carry a heavy dose religious symbolism. The Communist Party’s failed attempt to replace the Czech’s traditional gift bringer, Jezicek, or Little Jesus, with the secular Grandfather Frost failed, even with the culture’s general apathy toward organized religion. Recent census polls indicate that a near majority of Czechs consider themselves atheists, or at least agnostic.

Christianity came to Bohemia when Wenceslas, the duke of Bohemia (and the “good king” of Christmas carol fame), officially converted to Christianity in 929. Since then, Bohemians’ relationship to Christianity has been, at best, rocky. When the charismatic Czech religious reformer, Jan Hus, convinced the Bohemian populace that the church needed reform in the early 1400s, the pope had Hus burned at the stake and then sent crusading armies into Bohemia to squash the movement. A century later in Germany, Martin Luther, picking up where Hus left off, succeeded in splintering Europe apart on religious lines, culminating on the outskirts of Prague in the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, which pitted Reformation Europe (including the Bohemians) against Catholic Austria. The Austrian Hapsburgs won and proceeded to supplant Counter Reformation zeal onto the Czech lands with enough fervency to make a Stalinist shiver.

But for reasons that I don’t understand, Jezicek and a handful of religious customs persist, all of which I was happy to miss that first year in Prague.

When I got back from Italy after Christmas, I quickly learned I was not off the hook so easily. A letter from Lenka was waiting. “We’ve postponed Christmas,” the letter read. “My mom insists on giving you, her new child, a proper Czech Christmas. Please call me or Mom as soon as possible so you can come to Usti.” I imagined Lenka’s family sitting by the undecorated Christmas tree rotating glances between the clock and the phone. It was already December 28. I avoided calling Lenka to arrange a belated Christmas celebration.

Another letter arrived a few days into the new year. “We’re still waiting for you,” it read. “We’re not celebrating Christmas until you come. P.S. The tree is getting dry.”

A week later, there was yet another letter pinned to the bulletin board just inside the front door to my apartment building. It only contained once sentence:


I couldn’t take it any longer. I called and apologized, offering a typical American excuse that I’d been “busy with work.” Lenka’s voice was cold, like a shunned ex-girlfriend, but she still seemed relieved when I finally made plans to come celebrate Christmas, even though I was just coming for the day.

Before I knocked on Lenka’s parents’ door, I stopped for a minute to gather my thoughts in the corridor. This is it, I told myself. This is the last time I’m going to do this. Then I raised my fist to knock. It was January 24.

“Merry Christmas!” Ladia, Edita, and Lenka yelled as I walked through the front door. “Oh, thank god you’re here,” Edita said. The apartment was sparklingly clean, decked out with decorations of angels and apostles. Christmas carols spun on the record player. The table was set for a full-course meal, which was the traditional carp and potato salad.

Two weeks before the holiday, large plastic tubs crammed with live carp appear on street corners in Prague and other Czech cities. There are two options for buyers: have it killed, cleaned, and gutted right there on the sidewalk or take the carp home alive in a large water-filled plastic bag. For the latter, standard procedure dictates that the fish live in the bathtub until Christmas Day. Holiday revelers starve the fish, which gives it a cleaner taste.

As Edita plopped a large chunk of carp on my plate next to a bulbous dollop of potato salad–another Czech holiday staple–I couldn’t help but wonder if the fish had been frozen or if it had been living in the bathtub for the past three weeks. Ladia and Edita didn’t smell funny, but then again, the aroma of baked things wafting from the kitchen was eclipsing my sense of smell. I spent the time uncomfortably fielding questions from them about my time in Italy over Christmas. Between questions, we’d fall into a silence, broken only by the clanging of silverware.

After dinner I was shepherded into the living room and placed in front of the skeleton-like Christmas tree. After a series of traditional rituals that involved ringing a bell, the supposed arrival and departure of Jezicek, and a few stories about how we were supposed to see a golden pig, Ladia handed out sparklers. “This is typical Czech tradition,” he said, looking slightly sheepish. As I stood next to Lenka and her mom in front of the brittle tree, Ladia lit our incense-sized fire sticks and the family began to sing a Czech Christmas carol. I took a step back when I noticed small fireballs launching into the tree’s arid, impotent branches. No one else seemed alarmed.

In fact, they were blissful. From my position a step behind them, I watched Lenka and her parents stare at the tip of their sparklers, singing a song in a language I didn’t know. They looked lost, completely taken away from their loathing reality. I felt satisfied that, one last time, one last Christmas, I could be the distraction that keeps this family from completely hating each other. Merry Christmas.