Preparing for our traditional bi-cultural Christmas
Since the start of the Advent season last weekend, my house has been aflutter with excitement. As soon as we brought the Christmas boxes down from storage in the attic last Saturday morning, the children began to rummage through them to find their favorite seasonal decorations. Although I warned them that digging into the fragile ornament box was off limits, they unwrapped all the unbreakable items and trimmed the house, setting out our Santa collection and arranging the Nativity scene. With the three of them vying for dibs on the “best” decorations, the house was as rowdy as a sporting event.
As they oohed and ahhed over the decorations I realized that the act of decorating our house was becoming a tradition in and of itself. As it has always been our family’s custom to spend Christmas in the US one year and to stay in the Czech Republic the next, we set out most of our holiday decorations only when we stay in Prague. This year, they were all big enough to help set out the decorations and the older two took turns recounting to Samuel memories of Christmases past.
I was surprised how vividly they remembered, at least subconsciously, the Christmas two years ago. When I found the one lone goat from our Nativity scene perched sideways on the grassy roof of the barn instead of standing below with the shepherd and his flock of sheep, I asked the children what was going on. Oliver explained the scene by saying, “See, the dog is woofing at the goat to get down, but he can’t because he wants to see the baby, too.” I remembered that he’d set the scene up that way two years ago, much to his sister’s annoyance. As they stood side by side on three little red chairs and squabbled over how to arrange the scene and whose turn it was to put the baby Jesus in the barn, I started to intervene; then I reconsidered. Working out how to take turns and keep your brother or your sister happy seemed like a valuable lesson, anytime of the year.
While the children and I were working inside, Radek was decorating the outside of the house with lights and a miniature reindeer he’d found at the hardware store. We’d bought a glittery Santa at an after-Christmas sale in West Virginia last Christmas, and Radek gave him a place of honor by the front door. To accompany Santa, we almost hung a bright, hand-painted red ball with “Merry Christmas” lettering on the front door, but I decided that together with the outdoor lights and the flashy Santa, the Merry Christmas ball threatened to Americanize our holiday decorations too much. As it was, our house was beginning to bear resemblance to National Lampoon’s Christmas. Radek was no Clark Griswald, but the kids and I were doing our part to make the inside of the house as colorful and bright as we could.
In the end, I opted to buy a simple green wreath at the local garden center, a glue gun and some gold beads. Together with nuts, dried hydrangea and left-over ribbon, we made a natural wreath for the front door that seemed to somewhat balance Santa’s glitter. In addition to the door wreath, for the first time ever, we decided to make an Advent wreath for our dining room table. Although growing up, I associated the lighting of the Advent candles with Sunday morning church service, for many Czechs the Advent wreath is a staple Christmas table decoration. The children know of the Advent wreath tradition because even their classroom has one, so they were eager to make our own.
This was the first year that I felt as if we could tackle a do-it-yourself project with the help of all three kids. While Radek was stringing lights, we trooped off to the garden center again in search of another wreath and fancy candles. Deciding which color of candles to buy required another compromise; we ended up with dark red ones. Gluing the decorations onto the wreath meant we had to count out the number of balls, ribbons and berries to make sure it was divisible by three.
The rest of the weekend continued in much the same fashion. Before the end of Sunday afternoon, the children had set up two miniature trees in their bedrooms and had decorated them with straw ornaments we’d bought at the local garden center as well as old-fashioned painted wooden ornaments my mother had given them. In order to decorate the trees, they’d divided the ornaments into three piles. Upon realizing that the boys would have more ornaments on their tree than she would, Anna used her bargaining skills and her weight as the oldest to get more decorations. In the end, all the kids were just thrilled to have a tree in their room. My head however, was spinning from the constant need to keep everything fair and equal.
Even after the weekend had ended, the children continued to think up new decorations for the house. Finally, they dug out Christmas cds and brought out their guitar and piano books to try to learn some songs (Anna in English and Oliver in Czech) in time for Christmas. Sammy got the triangle and a toy drum to accompany his brother and sister. The older two delighted in teaching Samuel the words to a few traditional Czech carols. When he sang, půjdem spolu do Beckilandu (we all go together to Beckiland [an indoor play center in Prague]) instead of do Betléma (we all go together to Bethlehem) the older kids could barely keep straight faces.
While the time leading up to Christmas tends to be one of the busiest times of the year, this year, by letting the children take the lead, I’ve enjoyed our holiday preparations more than ever. I might not have added as much glitter or flash on my own, but I also wouldn’t have laughed or had nearly as much fun.
This Saturday, December 7, at 4 pm come to St. Clement’s church in Old Town for the annual singing of traditional English Christmas carols for English-speaking and bilingual children in Prague. There will also be a few Czech classics. The event is sponsored by Class Acts, Kids in Prague, the British Chamber of Commerce in Prague and Canza. A collection at the door will be taken in the spirit of King Wenceslas for children near and far.