Finding cultural significance in the calendar.
We were eating a leisurely Sunday lunch with some friends when our Czech friend Alice asked, “Do you put Sunday as the first day of the week?” The question caught me off guard; I had to stop to think about it. She explained that her daughter had learned in English class that the week began with Sunday, but that on the Czech calendar the week always begins with Monday. I went over to our wall calendar, which came from the US, to look at the setup. Sure enough, Sunday was the first day of the week. Then I checked the calendar in my Czech mobile phone and confirmed it listed Monday first. I was surprised that I’d never noticed the difference. I wondered if listing Sunday or Monday first on a country’s official calendars had any cultural significance.
I’d never thought much about the idea of splitting the weekend and starting the week with a “weekend” day. Incidentally the Czechs say víkend (vee-kend), too. But that’s what my friend had been pondering. Alice concluded that, while it seemed strange to split the two weekend days, it was a nice idea to start the week with a day traditionally reserved for resting and family. Despite being one of the least outwardly religious cultures in the world, Czechs have long upheld Sunday as a special day.
In the Czech Republic, Sunday is the primary day for visiting family and sharing a family meal, usually a larger lunch. Although many retail stores in downtown Prague are open every day of the week, outside of the city center and throughout smaller Czech towns, the business districts are typically dead on Sundays. There may be an odd coffee shop or newsstand open, but nearly everything else will be shut up until Monday morning. The only exception is during the Advent season when the Sundays leading up to Christmas are labeled bronze, silver and gold, and merchants keep their stores open for the increased traffic of Christmas shoppers.
During a regular week, most Czechs tend to do their weekend shopping on Friday night or Saturday morning. Radek and I used to do our weekly shopping on Sunday evenings on our way home from visits with his family. However, we discovered that empty shelves and the lack of fresh produce and bread, among other things, make it more efficient to go on Saturday or to wait until Monday morning. During Communism, it was typical for companies to ask employees to work on Saturdays to make up for holidays, but Sundays were always respected as a day of rest.
The custom of starting the week on Sunday dates back to the times when the official calendars were made by the churches and monasteries. When I checked a website of modern calendars from around the world, most of the European calendars, including the calendar from the UK, listed Monday as the first day of the week. However, beyond that conformity, I couldn’t discern much of a system between which countries start with Monday and which with Sunday. Other nations with calendars that start on a Sunday include Canada, Australia, much of South America, Japan, and Singapore. The division seems fairly random to my uninformed eyes.
When I thought about the Sunday habits of my family in the States and my Czech in-laws, they don’t seem that different. In both families, Sundays carry a regularity and a consistency of routine that the other days of the week often lack. Our Sundays spent in the US often involve attending church followed by lunch at a restaurant. Later in the day we get out to do something active. My childhood Sundays were spent much in the same fashion.
While the specifics of our Saturdays here in the Czech Republic often vary according to the weather, season and sport, Sundays are spent by-and-large together in Radek’s grandparents’ apartment with other relatives. Our Czech family’s Sunday routine illustrates, for me, the heart of Czech family culture. Our children start the day by walking with Radek’s mother from her apartment across the town to his grandparents. The four-kilometer walk goes through the center of the downtown, past quiet store fronts and the town hall and then along a lake. The kids enjoy tossing a few bread crumbs to the ducks and carp. Then they progress onto a paved path, which has become quite popular with rollerbladers, bikers and dog walkers. The walking habit started years ago when babička insisted that the fresh air would give then one-year-old Anna Lee a good nap in her stroller while Radek and I had a break from parental duty. Now both Anna and Oliver are big enough to handle the distance on foot with ease. Walking also ensures that they work up a suitable appetite for the traditional Czech lunch to follow.
On most Sundays, Radek’s grandparents serve us řízek s brambory (fried pork or chicken cutlets with potatoes). After eating, we sit together in the living room, drinking coffee, dozing, catching up on family news, reading the tabloid Blesk or watching the children run around the apartment. Often aunts, uncles, and cousins drop by for all or part of the afternoon. There is usually at least one topic each visit that leads to a heated discussion. The intensity of the opinions and the straightforwardness of Radek’s relatives used to make me feel nervous. Now, I just sit back and wait to see what transpires.
When my parents’ visit Radek’s family, they can never quite believe that we sit around inside most of the afternoon, since they typically take long walks or runs on Sunday afternoon. But for Radek’s family, the post-meal quiet time seems to be a much-needed break in an otherwise motion-filled week. Even so, the children don’t last long cooped up, so during good weather we venture out to a nearby playground. Our visit usually ends as evening falls, and we leave for Prague laden with leftovers and promises to come again as soon as we can. Although by the end, my head is spinning from the intensity of the day, I can’t imagine spending a Sunday visit with Radek’s family in a different manner.
A few days after Alice’s question aroused my curiosity, I was listening to a children’s English sing-along CD. One song was about the days of the week. The song began with Sunday and when I sang along I realized that I must have always associated Sunday in English with the first day of the week. Still, when I say the days of the week in Czech, putting pondělí (Monday) first seems quite natural. Even after reflecting on the differences in the calendar configuration, I can’t really see any advantage to where Sunday falls in the weekly line-up, I just know that Sundays, in whatever form they take, are absolutely essential.