Sunday, 17 December 2017

Half-n-half: The spirit of Christmases past

By Joann Plocková |
Prague Daily Monitor |
19 December 2008

Keeping the Christmas spirit in new holiday traditions

Half-n-Half reader Joann Plocková, an American married to a Czech living in Prague, shares the joy of her newly found Christmas traditions.

Last year, right around this time, sitting inside a café off Prague's Vodičkova street, my Czech-English language exchange partner asked me whether I preferred celebrating Christmas in America or Česká Třebová, the small town where my in-laws live and my husband of five years, Roman, grew up. When I answered Česká Třebová, she asked me why. My response, limited by my very poor Czech, was something along the lines of, because it is quieter, which is true, but what I wanted to say is that it allows me to re-experience the spirit of my childhood Christmases.

I was a kid who absolutely loved Christmas. Yes, it had something to do with finding out what was inside all the wrapped boxes pouring out from under the tree, but my real enjoyment came from the simpler treasures, such as my family's drive around the neighborhood to look at all the Christmas lights, the abundant variety of homemade cookies and Christmas day at my grandmother’s house, where several tables were pushed together to accommodate my very large family. Here we enjoyed a delicious meal and sang carols from my grandfather’s Mitch Miller album.

In fact, when the family grew even larger and my grandmother older, she could no longer handle the preparations involved and had to forgo holding Christmas day at her house. I cried and went through a kind of kid depression, which resulted in my writing a story about having to let go of old traditions and beginning new ones.

Although the story probably helped me out some, Christmas was never quite the same for me. As I got older and the focus of Christmas in America, in my eyes, became more centered around what you got and how much and hurry get it now. My family was so large that the event became a frenzy of preparations and then cleaning them up quickly to make more space. I lost my sense of wonder about the holiday and certainly didn’t look forward to it as much as I had in the past.

I’ve now celebrated Christmas in Česká Třebová with my in-laws several times over the last seven years. Shared by myself, Roman, my sister-in-law, her American husband and their three-year old daughter Ella, it is a smaller event in terms of the size of the group, but this is something that contributes to my enjoyment.

Usually both our families arrive on what is Christmas Eve for me, but Christmas for the Czechs. The smell of my in-law’s culinary creations, which have been prepared weeks in advance, waft through the air when they emerge from the enclosed kitchen. After we exchange greetings and put our things in the bedrooms upstairs, we settle to the living room to watch winter sports on Eurosport, curl up with a good book or play with Ella.

In the late afternoon, Christmas dinner is served. The only traditional Czech Christmas food we eat is potato salad, which accompanies not carp (no one in the family particularly likes it), but řízek (schnitzel) for myself, Roman and my in-laws, and fish and rice for my sister and brother-in-law. Ella usually samples a bit of both meals. Although there might be some extra potato salad left over, the amount of food is just one generous serving per person. At my Christmases in America I could essentially eat all day long, which of course has its benefits, but some downfalls as well, including feeling sick. At the end of my meals in Česká Třebová I feel completely satisfied, and thankfully there is room left for a Christmas highlight at my in-law’s: my mother in-law's sweets.

My mother in-law is an exceptional baker and, as is the case with her garden, she has a remarkable sensibility, resulting in the most beautiful and delicate cookies and cakes at Christmas. In the words of my brother-in-law's mother, who has had the opportunity to sample them during visits: "She should really go into business." Like my own mother and grandmother, my mother-in-law bakes at least five varieties of cookies, my favorite of which is the Linzer cookies. The jam in between is made from her own strawberries, which are canned every year. The cookie is so light I can eat fifteen of them and not feel full, but rather that I’ve had some magical experience.

After chocolates and an hour or so more of Eurosport, reading or whatever other activity satisfies, we exchange gifts. As is the case with the food, the quantity is much more palatable. I'm not going to fib – in terms of gifts, when I was a kid it was the more the merrier. However, like too much sugar, too many gifts can induce a sort of madness and no one is really allowed the time to look at or appreciate what they have received. In Česká Třebová, because we exchange only one or two gifts, the process is much calmer.

What I look forward to most about Christmas in Česká Třebová, this year being no exception, is the outside activities. Watching from either a square window at the top of the first set of stairs or the small window in the bathroom upstairs, I can see out into the backyard. I watch my father-in-law pull Ella along the snow covered grass in a wooden sled. Later, we might all go for a walk, or myself, Roman and my father-in-law, snowboarding at the local slope.

My favorite activity is walking by myself down the road that runs through the town, which stretches out to reveal lovely views of rolling hills and bunches of pine trees high up on the hills covered in snow. Sometimes I make my way up one of those hills and fill my lungs with the fresh air of the forest. Catching my breath I look out at the countryside and down at the town with its small houses, the church steeple and the train track running alongside, and I get the same warm feeling about Christmas that I did as a child.

Half-n-half invites readers to send us your own half-n-half stories of the holidays, (Mikuláš, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year's or otherwise) to emily@praguemonitor.com. We will collect your stories in a special holiday edition of Half-n-half to be published after the New Year in the Prague Daily Monitor.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please send comments to emily@praguemonitor.com.

Half-n-Half will return to the Prague Daily Monitor on 9 January. Until then - Happy Holidays!