Solidifying our blended holiday traditions
“Hey Mommy, look –I’m Jesus!” Samuel grinned as he pulled a red Santa’s cap further down on his head. With his ears sticking out, he looked a lot more like one of Santa’ elfish accomplices than he did Santa. He looked nothing like the Jesus I knew from Biblical pictures, but I also knew that any attempt to explain the rather significant differences between Jesus and Santa Claus would be lengthy and likely confusing.
Oliver stopped arranging the Nativity figures to check out Samuel’s get-up, then said dead-panned, “Don’t you know that Jesus is dead.” Samuel looked puzzled for a moment. Then he switched gears and came to me. “Tell me the truth, Mom, did you put the elf on the mirror?” We received the elf and his accompanying Elf on the Shelf book last year in a secret package from the US. The elf arrived in time for St. Nicholas’s Day, and the kids named him Jingle. According to a recent secular holiday tradition, his job is to watch and report back to Santa on good behavior or misdoings. Each night he moves to a different spot and no one in the family is supposed to touch him. Luckily, I could truthfully answer him that I hadn’t touched the elf (although he didn’t ask if his father had).
Since turning four, sorting out the concept of telling the truth has become a big deal for Samuel. Like most conversations with my children, it is conducted in both languages simultaneously. A recent discussion went like this: “No, Mommy, I really didn’t write on the door frame. Jasne (clearly) I didn’t. Well, maybe omylem (accidently), I put cisla (numbers) on the door because I wanted our house to look like a hotel.” I have spent a lot of time trying to explain the importance of telling the truth, mostly with no sense of headway. I was pleasantly surprised that Samuel had grasped the concept, even if it meant facing his interrogation.
Over the years, whenever people have asked who delivers the Christmas gifts to our children, Jezisek (baby Jesus) or Santa Claus, I’m eager to answer that we do it as we do most things that are important to us – “half ‘n half.” Since Anna Lee was born ten Christmas’s ago, we have alternated where and how we celebrate Christmas each year. On the years that we’re in the Czech Republic, we do Christmas the Czech way. And on the alternating years when we travel to the US for Christmas, we follow American traditions. Along the way, we have also created a few family traditions of our own.
This year we’re traveling to my parents’ house to have an American-style Christmas, which I’ll admit has my children more confused than I anticipated. While the older two children remember a bit about Christmas in the US, their memories are selective. I overheard Oliver tell Samuel that “Santa must be real because once I saw his footprints in the snow outside Grana and Opa’s house.” Or Anna’s recent remark after reading an American Christmas book, “I think they don’t have Advent wreaths in the US like they do here because I looked in Corduroy’s Christmas book and they didn’t have them.” She also asked me why her book showed stockings hung at the ends of the beds in the US and not over the fireplace like we do at my parents’. And she’s mentioned how much she’s looking forward to going to church. When I told her that she’d go to church on her birthday, she was delighted. She remembered taking Communion at the Christmas Eve service two years ago, and she told the boys about the bread and juice they’d get to drink. For her, church is a treat related to her American heritage. The midnight Christmas Eve service is the only one I’ve attended in the Czech Republic myself.
With no active memories to draw from, Samuel is full of questions. On the way home from his preschool on Tuesday afternoon, he tells me that he has only two more days, and then he isn’t going to school. Thinking that he’s gotten mixed up about when we plan to leave for the US, I remind him that the week has five school days, and he is going to school on Friday, too. Finally, he tells me that he isn’t going on Friday because St. Nicholas, the devil and the angel are coming to visit his school. He’s scared, he says, though still smiling, because he explains –“maybe the devil will take me away in a bag.” After I reassure him that no one is going to take him anywhere; he reluctantly agrees to go to school. Then Anna chimes in, “Actually, the devils did take some boys in my class away in a sack last year. They made them all dirty and then they brought them back.” Samuel’s eyes grow wider, and once again he refuses to go to school.
While celebrating St. Nicholas on the eve of December 5 is a long-standing tradition throughout much of Europe, the Czech interpretation’s strong emphasis on the role of the devil seems more unique. In recent years, Czechs have taken the St. Nicholas tradition and turned it into a kind of pre-Christmas, Halloween-esque dress-up free-for-all. If you go downtown on the evening of December 5, you can see costumed teenagers and adults walking through the squares, usually in a trio, with St. Nicholas reading from his book of deeds, angels giving out candy and devils rattling their chains and threatening to take the naughty away to hell in a potato sack. You can find St. Nicholas parties around town, and upon request (and with advance booking) the trio will come to your home and scare your children right in their own bedroom. The devil makes an appearance in many Czech fairy tales, and he even has a key role in the modern Czech interpretation of the ballet Nutcracker. Frankly, if I were Samuel, I doubt that I’d want to go to preschool either.
We’ve never invited St. Nicholas to our house, much to Oliver’s dismay. In years past, we have attended community St. Nicholas events. This year, however, I think Samuel’s experience at preschool will suffice. On Thursday afternoon, I tell his teacher that he’s quite scared about Friday, and she tells him not to worry because he’s a “good” boy. I wonder to myself what she’d say if he’d been a “naughty” boy, but I decide that the conversation isn’t worth pursuing.
In this first week of December, we’ve decorated the house, even though we are leaving for the US ten days before Christmas. Bemoaning the fact that we won’t have a real Christmas tree this year, the children insisted on putting up their artificial miniature trees. We also got out the wooden Santa Clauses and holiday-themed ceramics they made in school last year. When the Christmas market opened in Dejvice, I bought an evergreen swag so at least we’d have a bit of real greenery on the front door. Samuel helped me tie on a red and white ribbon and hot-glue gun bright red berries on it. Finally, we got out some flat, wooden ornaments that my mother painted years ago and hooked them onto the swag. There was a kneeling angel, a skier, a little drummer boy, one of the wise men and a stocking filled to overflowing, all hanging side by side. “It looks like a miniature tree, doesn’t it?” I said with satisfaction. “It’s the prettiest wreath, we’ve ever had,” Anna declared in agreement. “It looks weird,” Oliver commented. “Why didn’t you just get a real tree?”
As a consolation for no tree, the boys and I baked a batch of gingerbread cookies. They wore their chef’s aprons and hats, and we sent pictures to the US. Before we managed to decorate the cookies, the boys ate them all. They weren’t as sweet as the sugar cookies we usually make in the US, and when my father called, Samuel told him that he’d like to bake with him, too. My dad agreed. Then my dad asked them if they’d like to help decorate the Christmas tree this year. I was floored, ever since I could remember my parents have bought and decorated their tree shortly after Thanksgiving. But my dad promised the children that this year they’d wait until we arrive to decorate the tree. The children have been beside themselves with excitement.
Counting down the days until we fly to the US, our house has been filled with the tingle of anticipation. Christmas itself takes a backseat to the thrill of getting to see our family and friends in the US that we haven’t seen for months or years. The children are more worried about who will greet us at the airport and whether they’ve got the right passports to make the trip, than they are about which of the traditions will be front and center this holiday.
Being a bilingual kid often means dealing with a bit of confusion, particularly around holiday time. But, to me, the benefits of knowing both cultures outweigh any negatives. I think my kids would agree.