Ježíšek or Santa Claus?

December 14, 2012
Emily kids holding presents in front of a Christmas tree

Blending traditions for a bilingual holiday

As we were driving in the car the other day, I casually asked the children, “Who is coming to our house this year for Christmas, Santa Claus or Ježíšek?” With enthusiasm, the older two children replied, “Santa Claus!” “It’s only logical,” Anna Lee added, “since we are going to be in America this year.” And with that, the discussion dissolved into a back-and-forth between Anna and Oliver over the physical appearance of both “magical” entities. At ages almost-eight and five and a half, our two older children recognize that Czech and American cultures have different holiday customs and traditions. Most of the time, they are happy to go back-and-forth between the two holiday-time cultures, much as they navigate between the two languages on a daily basis.

As the time draws close to the Christmas holidays, my children vividly remember Christmases past and anticipate the festivities of the upcoming season. They have their favorite traditions in each culture, although as a holiday, Christmas is beloved in its many forms. Participating in pre-Christmas concerts and performances, baking specialty cookies, and decorating the Christmas tree, are activities that top the children’s list of favorite Christmas rituals regardless of where we celebrate the holiday.

Before we left for America, Anna spent a few evenings preparing Christmas cards for her Czech teachers. She used English cards that featured a plump Santa riding in a hot air balloon and climbing a tall ladder. She translated the English holiday message into Czech, but when it came time to translate Santa’s “ho ho ho” she was stumped. That simply can’t be put into Czech, she declared. As a present, she gave her teachers a sand dollar that we had bought at the beach while in the US last year. She turned the seashells into Christmas tree ornaments by wrapping red or silver ribbon through the shell’s holes.

By far, one of the most entertaining aspects of our Czech Christmases is the presence of the Christmas carp. Much to Oliver’s chagrin, on the years we travel to America, it’s not possible to uphold our family’s tradition of keeping a live carp for a day or so prior to Štědrý den (Dec 24). On the years we stay in Prague, Radek buys the carp at a market stand downtown. He and the children then delight in watching it swim in our bathtub before it turns into Christmas Eve dinner. Last year, Oliver convinced Radek to let him watch the gutting and de-scaling process, although he still didn’t manage to convince himself to eat much of the fish once it was on his dinner plate.

Both of the children were sad we didn’t find time to bake and decorate traditional Czech perníčky (gingerbread cookies) this year, although Anna Lee’s classroom made their own gingerbread dough and cookies one morning in school. We bought a few decorative gingerbreads at Anna’s school market so that we could show family back in the US the intricate designs and decorations characteristic of Czech gingerbread cookies. My father’s specialty is wafer-thin sugar cookies. He’s saved some dough and promised to let the children roll it out and cut it into various shapes to atone for missing out on the gingerbread. Although the extent of our decorating has always been sprinkling the cookies with brightly colored red and green sugar sprinkles, perhaps this year the kids will convince my dad to let them use decorative icing and give the sugar cookies some Czech decoration.

In comparing Santa Claus and Ježíšek, Anna and Oliver both described Santa much as he’s pictured on greeting cards and in holiday movies. Surprisingly, they also described Ježíšek as a mature, bearded masculine figure. When I remarked that Ježíšek seemed very similar to Santa in his dress and physical characteristics, Anna was quick to point out that the two figures look nothing alike. Santa is round and jolly, traveling with a sack full of toys and eight flying reindeer, while Ježíšek is slim and sophisticated. Ježíšek rides with horses pulling a cart and a truck filled with toys. With a long white beard, a pointed hat painted with a cross, but not a ball on the end like Santa’s, Ježíšek sure sounded a lot like Mikuláš (St. Nicholas). I expected Anna had gotten her figures a bit confused. When I asked Radek why he thought the children had given Mikuláš’s image to Ježíšek, he admitted that he’d done much the same thing as a child.

Growing up with the image of Santa Claus rooted in my earliest Christmas memories, the idea of baby Jesus bringing gifts to Czech children initially struck me as odd. We always learned in church that, like the Wise Men, we should bring gifts to honor the baby Jesus at the holidays, not the other way around. I wondered how the religious connotation fit with the predominantly atheist popular culture. Although I’d never known how Czech children visualize Ježíšek as a gift giver, it was clear, at least for my children that they associated a specific visual image much like that of St. Nick’s with the gift giver.

Later in the week at a theatrical performance at Anna’s school, we watched Czech children reenact the Christmas story, complete with a plastic baby for Jesus, the stable and all the biblical characters. The Czech children were familiar with the story of Jesus’ birth; last year, in fact, Anna’s class had acted out the story as well. It seemed to me that the Czech’s version of a secular Christmas wasn’t that far from my childhood memories of Christmases back home. At both children’s Christmas programs we sang traditional holiday hymns, and in the ecumenical carol singing last Saturday, we alternated singing in Czech and English and then finished the evening by singing Silent Night/ Tichá noc in both languages.

Recently someone asked me if it wasn’t strange to have both Ježíšek and Santa Claus in our family’s Christmas tradition. I didn’t know how to respond. The children have never struck me as being confused around the holidays, just as they’ve never really been that confused about interacting in Czech and American cultures the rest of the year. For them, the Christmas holidays seem to be a time to appreciate the best of both cultures, to enjoy the differences and perhaps to bring a little Czech culture into the lives of our family in America and vice versa.

In the days leading up to Christmas this year, my children have been more interested in absorbing holiday traditions and taking part in festive Christmas events than they have been in trying to figure out the mystery of Santa Claus or Ježíšek. More than anything, they’re looking forward to enjoying this year’s Christmas holiday with their US family and friends.

Best wishes for a warm winter holiday and a prosperous start to the New Year! Half n Half will return in January. – Emily

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