Czech Culture & Adaptation Holidays

A bi-cultural Christmas

November 27, 2009
Emily kids holding presents in front of a Christmas tree

Is two-times the holiday, twice as much fun?

For a “half n half” family blending different cultural traditions, religious beliefs and family rituals into any cohesive holiday celebration can be stressful. On the other hand, holidays are ideal occasions for revealing a family’s mixed heritage. Having two (or more) traditions to uphold adds to the excitement of planning and gives each partner a taste of the other’s cherished childhood memories. When children are involved, having a multi-cultural celebration can be an important way for them to experience habits and traditions they might not be exposed to in the country where they’re growing up.

As far as my own family is concerned, we’ve alternated spending Christmas in the US and the Czech Republic for the past several years, and we’ve tried to blend a bit of both heritages, regardless of our location. While in America, according to Czech Christmas tradition, Radek has fried catfish (in the absence of carp) in my parents’ kitchen, and made a vat of potato salad (per děda’s recipe) large enough to feed us till New Year’s. We’ve baked Czech vánočka (sweetbread) alongside my father’s traditional cream-cheese coffee cakes, and iced and decorated gingerbread cookies made from a Czech recipe.

However, apart from incorporating Czech food specialties into our holiday menu, our time in America is spent adhering to the beliefs and rituals that I remember from childhood. Each year on December 24, we attend a Christmas Eve service at my childhood church followed by a party hosted by one of my long-time family friends. The festive atmosphere continues till late in the evening, and over the years it’s been an occasion to meet new friends and get re-acquainted with old ones. According to my parents, the talk of the party one year when we were absent was the live carp swimming in our bathtub back in Prague.

Later in the evening, Radek and I return to my parents’ house and play “Santa,” setting out toys and filling the children’s stockings with surprises they’ll find on Christmas morning. Even as an adult, I still have a difficult time falling asleep with the anticipation of the morning’s offerings, and when Anna Lee or Oliver stirs at daybreak, I’m as eager as they are to jump from bed and begin the day. After a leisurely breakfast by the Christmas tree, we spend the rest of Christmas day visiting with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins who’ve gathered for the holiday.

Although we’ve spent two Christmases in the Czech Republic, this year marks the first we’ve actually spent as a family in our new home. With that in mind, Radek and I sat down to discuss how we’d celebrate this special holiday. Since it will be the first holiday that both our children might later remember, I was particularly interested how we’d reconcile Ježišek (baby Jesus) who brings gifts in the Czech Republic with Santa Claus who brings presents in the US, since both children remember Santa Claus from last year.

Before I could mention my concern, Radek began listing the chain of events for the evening of December 24. My heart stopped for a minute when I heard him say, “And after dinner, you’ll go up with the kids to play, and I’ll set up the gifts, light the tree and ring a bell for you to come down.”

“Wait a minute!” I exclaimed, “What about Santa? Can’t we leave some gifts for the morning?” I was surprised to discover how strongly I felt about having both traditions present even though I knew that the previous year we’d just celebrated with Santa.

However, after pleading my case to no avail for a few minutes, I began to slowly concede. As Radek pointed out, he has willingly gone along with all the American traditions each year we’ve spent at my parent’s home. He mentioned that it would be a neat change of atmosphere to celebrate the magic while still dressed up for dinner, instead of being dressed in pajamas, still bleary-eyed from sleep. I had to laugh when he referred to getting “dressed up” since that is one of the aspects of the holiday that he’s always trying to find a way around in the US, but I took him at his word, and I’ll expect to see him in fancy-attire for our Christmas meal this year.

In terms of practicality and simplifying the inevitable holiday chaos, I agreed with Radek that having two rounds of gifts and two magical entities one after the other in the same house might be a bit much, taking away from the spirit of family and togetherness which we’d both like to be the focus of our holiday. I did insist that we set out a plate of cookies for Santa and his reindeer, per my childhood tradition, in case Santa’s sleighs flies through the Czech Republic hungry, and we both agreed that we should leave the children’s stockings unfilled until the morning, since Ježišek wouldn’t know what to do with them.

Now that Anna Lee is old enough to remember Christmases past, I’m curious to see how she’ll react to the difference in traditions from last year. In all likelihood, she may not even notice since she’s busy dreaming up her own Christmas traditions. Her favorite aspect of Christmas (and her birthday) is the Christmas tree, and we’ve bought her a tiny artificial tree which she’s already begun decorating. Although Anna was initially disappointed that her tree wasn’t real (a true purist) she was consoled by the fact that she’ll get to keep it from Thanksgiving till Christmas in her room. She’s eager to make her own presents for everyone, and she’s very secretive about the gifts she’s been preparing for us at školka.

After my conversation with Radek, I’m determined to blend a few more American traditions into our primarily Czech holiday this year. I’m not planning to change any part of the Czech tradition he’s already planned, but I’ll squeeze some American side-dishes alongside our carp, and I’ll make sure that our Christmas sweets include American recipes as well as the Czech ones. Maybe I’ll see if the kids want to sing carols to our neighbors. It’s a tradition I remember from my childhood, and one I believe our kids and our neighbors would both enjoy.

In the spirit of this week’s American Thanksgiving holiday, I’d like to say thank you to my husband and children as well as all the “half n half” readers who’ve followed the column since its creation over two years ago. I’m grateful for your continued readership.

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