Exchanging Czech traditions for an American Christmas experience
For the past three Christmases (and many before that), my family has become temporary caretakers of a large, bottom-dwelling carp. Although having our Christmas dinner swimming in the bathtub a few days before we serve it on the table seems strange (even for many Czechs), it is one of the Czech holiday traditions my sons adore.
For my pint-size fishermen, nature-lovers, and budding scientists, having the carp alive at home is something out of a fairy tale. (Albeit, not one with a happy ending for the carp.) However, my family is not vegetarian, and I respect my sons’ desires to know more about the fish that they’ll later eat.
Over the years, my children have named our carps, studied the shape of their scales, and the way their gills go in and out when they breathe. Last Christmas, they even put on their swim suits and snorkel masks and got in the tub with the carp for a brief (ice-cold) swim.
On the morning of December 24, Oliver and Sam are also on hand to help my husband, Radek, butcher, gut, and clean the carp in preparation for our Christmas dinner meal. Last year, the boys cleaned the scales and laid them at each person’s place following the Czech tradition of putting a carp scale in your wallet to bring wealth.
Still, I didn’t realize how much having a carp meant to my children, until seven-year-old Samuel asked me a few days ago, “So, where are we going to get the carp this year, Mom?”
Sam knew we were traveling to the US (a first in many years) to spend Christmas with our American family. I assumed he also knew that we’d have turkey and honey baked ham for Christmas dinner along with a slew of Southern-style vegetable casseroles.
“What? No carp!” Sam exploded when I explained that carp wasn’t a traditional part of Christmas in America. “How are we going to have Christmas without the carp?” Sam was more disappointed about not having a carp (and, he doesn’t even like the taste of carp,) than he was when he found out he’d have to wait an extra day before he could open his presents.
In Czech tradition, Christmas is celebrated on the evening of December 24, and Ježíšek, baby Jesus, brings the family’s presents after dinner has been served, but before the family settles in to watch Czech fairy tales on television. Arriving unseen while children are still awake is a much trickier feat for Ježíšek than Santa, who gets the benefit of visiting during the night. My children have spent many a car ride philosophizing about just how Ježíšek does it.
Apart from missing their carp, when I asked my children what they were most looking forward to about this Christmas holiday, they unanimously agreed (and this doesn’t happen often) that spending time with their American family would be the highlight of this Christmas.
Of course, there were specific traditions each child remembered from years past. Anna, who will celebrate her 13th birthday on Christmas Eve, was excited about seeing the results of the National Gingerbread House Competition on display at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, North Carolina. Oliver wanted to go fishing at Lost Lake with my father, and Sam hoped there would be sugar cookie dough to roll out when we arrived.
As my children’s enthusiasm grows stronger, and the countdown to Christmas Day drops into the single digits, I am as much looking forward to the coming holiday as I am reminded of Christmases past, spent both in the Czech Republic and in the US.
There was the first year that I brought my (then) Czech-boyfriend to my hometown to meet my family and friends. (Radek had initially invited me to travel with him to Ecuador but having never spent Christmas away from my family, I convinced him that the Appalachian Mountains were every bit as cool as the Galapagos Islands.) I remember wondering if we would still like each other as much out of the Czech Republic as we did in Prague. Luckily, we did.
There was the year my waters broke at a Christmas party on December 23, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. My daughter, Anna Lee, was born a few hours later. Shortly after sunrise, she was washed and delivered to me in a Christmas stocking. In Prague, there were years of bathing in the bathtub with the carp looking on from his bucket, and years of following babička through the supermarket in search of sadlo (pork grease) and the right kind of Czech flour to bread and fry the carp fillets. There were Christmas recitals, school Christmas fairs, and Christmas afternoon shots of Becherovka exchanged with our Czech neighbors.
And there was the Christmas, many years ago, when it looked as if our family might not be able to celebrate the holiday together at all.
I still remember how I stood, sweating and nervous, at the Washington Dulles International Arrivals gate waiting for Radek to come through immigration. I stood for hours, afraid that if I sat down or stopped my diligent watch, I might jinx our chances of being together. I remember watching other families reunite with hugs and kisses, balloons, and Welcome Home banners.
At some point, a stewardess from the airlines came to tell me that my husband had been sent to secondary questioning. If he made it through, he would be with me shortly. At that time, Radek still maintained his green card, and we traveled often between the US and the Czech Republic. I had arrived in the US a few weeks earlier with our children. I was thankful they were with my parents and didn’t know yet that Radek had been detained.
While I waited, I remember making a deal with God, promising that if he could just let Radek through to join me and the children, I’d give up our “half and half” lives. We would pick a home base, and we wouldn’t try to travel back and forth. Radek did come through questioning, eventually, and we did spend that Christmas together. Soon afterward, he gave up his green card in favor of a normal tourist visa. Each time we travel, I am aware of how precious it is to have the freedom to live (and cross borders) together as a family.
But, there is one part of the deal I couldn’t keep. Now more than ever, I realize that it is precisely because of the traditions we have created in our “half and half” lives—traditions like hand delivering my father’s cream cheese coffee cakes, singing Christmas carols in Prague with other mixed families, and even keeping a live carp in the bathtub — that we are who we are.
My family is incredibly fortunate to be able to know and experience two different cultures first-hand and to learn about other cultures and traditions through our relationships with friends, the children’s formal school learning, and our travels. We live a privileged life.
I have never been persecuted for my beliefs. And, I have no idea how it feels like to be forced to choose between my family, my friends, or my country in search of a better life. It is highly unlikely that I will ever have to know what it means to be a refugee. Yet, each time I (or someone I love) cross a border, my hands sweat, my heart pounds, and I feel as if I can’t breathe.
My (dream) wish, this holiday season, is for families around the world to be free to celebrate, in their own unique ways, with the people they love close by their sides.
And, if you happen to be celebrating in the Czech Republic, could you please save a carp scale for Sam.
Half-n-Half will return in January 2018.