Czech Culture & Adaptation Holidays

Christmas countdown

December 9, 2011
advent calendar

Cultural significance of Advent calendars and nativity scenes.

Getting my kids out of bed during Advent season is thankfully easy. Each morning, my two older children stumble from bed and then leap to the window where they keep their Advent calendars. After a few intense seconds wrestling with thick cardboard (thanks to Playmobil’s heavy-duty packaging), they’re all smiles as they show-off the latest miniature toy to add to their Advent “scene.” This year Anna has a princess-themed scene and Oliver has a dinosaur one. We first discovered these super-fancy calendars in Dresden last year, when we were looking for small toys for our US trip. At the time, I had no idea how the children would react to getting these scene calendars in place of the ones with chocolate that they’d come to expect. I should have known they’d be a hit. In fact, last year our whole family enjoyed the process of setting them up, particularly Anna’s set which had a traditional secular Santa scene.

I can still picture my favorite Advent calendar. It was a village church scene printed on two layers of cardboard with glittery snow and carolers carrying twinkling candles. I loved the scene and the simple poems written inside each “window.” Growing up my brother and I always looked forward to the first of December. With my father’s German heritage, our family felt particularly close to the Advent calendar tradition that dated back to Germany in the 19th century. Receiving a new Advent calendar was a precious gift, and opening the tiny windows was an important aspect of our yearly pre-Christmas preparations. Along with the red and green paper chains that we made each year in school, we used the cardboard calendars with their beautiful illustrations and holiday poems or Bible verses to mark the days until December 25, which signified Santa’s arrival, as much as it did Jesus’s birth. The Advent calendars weren’t available locally, and my parents made special trips to book stores in larger cities where they’d find the ones with the most European-looking illustrations. Quite often the calendars were actually imported from Europe, which made them all the more exotic in my brother’s and my eyes.

Although my dad mentioned having chocolates in his calendars as a child in Germany, I’d never seen an Advent calendar with chocolate in it until my teenage years when my aunt in Berlin sent one to the US. Later, when I moved to Prague and my parents visited, they bought a chocolate calendar for my brother and his girlfriend, just for the novelty of it. In recent years, Advent calendars with chocolate and toys have become widely available in the US as well, although my mother told me she still looks for the ones imported from Europe because they have the best illustrations (not to mention the tastiest chocolates).

Along with our Advent calendars another important family pre-Christmas ritual was setting up the nativity scene with its intricately carved figures. My mother cherished our nativity scene as much, if not more than we children did. While we were allowed to help her set it up, we weren’t allowed to move the figures around or play with them like toys. I’d never really known the history behind it, until she recently reminded me that she’d collected it piece by piece at the local Hallmark store. Each year she bought one more figure, until finally she felt she had a “complete” collection. It was imported from Italy, and in addition to being pretty, she loved the fact that baby Jesus was separate from the manager. She’d always thought a “good” baby Jesus was crucial and hated if it was just wrapped cloth and no doll.

When we took a family trip to Italy, we’d found a nativity scene during an impromptu stop at a local garden center near Lake Garda. At Radek’s insistence, we purchased the entire set at once, including a package of extra sheep that Oliver couldn’t do without. The figures, although smaller than those in my parent’s set, were also intricately carved. I was curious but appreciative of my husband’s enthusiasm for having our own nativity scene. I figured with our frequent trips to the US for the holidays, he might not see the need. Setting the nativity out and arranging the figures was another special family moment, even if we did it only every other year. Although Oliver balked when I told him he couldn’t play with the sheep, I later consented and agreed he could use them but only within my eyesight, so we didn’t lose any critical pieces. When my mother visited us in Prague the Christmas after we’d bought the scene, she nodded her approval. The Italians sure know how to make nativity scenes, she declared.

Over the years of living here, I’ve learned that Czechs lay their own rightful claim as masters of nativity scene productions, albeit perhaps less traditional ones. Czech craftsmen are renowned for using materials, ranging from wood, paper, metals, clay, blown glass, tree stumps and moss as well as edible materials like gingerbread, butter and coconut shells, to craft their nativity masterpieces. From its earliest beginnings with the Jesuits in the second-half of the 16th century to its increasing popularity among woodworkers and craftsmen in the 18th century, the Czech nativity, called Betlém, is still an important part of the Czech Christmas tradition today. Modern-day creations, like the all-butter nativity made annually in the town of Máslovice (the town’s name is derived from the word butter), give the nativity an updated, if barely believable, image. The Czech tradition of handmade nativity scenes is described in a recent article from the Prague Post.

Before I realized the long-standing history behind the Czech nativity tradition, I happened into a traveling Betlém exhibit at the local Roztoky cultural museum. When I stood in front of the first elaborate, but seemingly odd, nativity that included hundreds of additional unaccounted for figures and animals, even elephants, I thought the Czechs must have really taken the Biblical interpretations lightly. However, as I continued to visit different nativity displays, I realized that, beyond the major figures of Mary, Joseph and infant Jesus, the craftsmen viewed the scenes as blank slates to construct their own interpretations of the holy birth. Some extra details highlight overlooked aspects of the Biblical story while others simply show the creativity and ingenuity of the Czech craftsmen. After a few viewings, the “odd” extras seemed less outstanding and I could focus on the craftsmanship and the uniqueness of the scenes without feeling strange that Jesus was often a blurb on the stage, overshadowed by thousands of other equally detailed characters.

A few years ago, on one of my mother’s spring visits to Prague, we took a trip through South Bohemia and stopped in Jindřichův Hradec for a glimpse of the Krýza Nativity, the largest mechanical nativity in the world. Both Mom and I were spellbound as we watched, in semi-darkness, the enormous nativity come to life with mechanical sounds and Czech traditional carols playing in the background. Although the scene was utterly surreal, it was on such a large scale I didn’t have a chance to take in the thousands of minute details before we were led out of the display room and another group came in. I think my mom felt the same way. No time to check if Jesus was a “good” one or not.

The other night while reading the contemporary classic “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever” as a bedtime story, Anna Lee stopped to ask me what a “pageant” was. When I explained that, in this usage, it was like a live Christmas nativity, she nodded with excitement. Her class would be doing a Betlém, she announced with pride, and she was going to be an angel who talked. The show is next week, and I’m curious to see how this interpretation of a Czech nativity plays out. Meanwhile, the kids are opening the doors of their Advent calendars daily, and their creativity with arranging and re-arranging their scenes makes me wonder if we don’t have some future nativity craftsmen in the family.

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