Saturday, 20 December 2014

Introducing British Christmas to Czech Children

My neighbour teaches English at our local primary school. She is not a qualified English teacher, but her English is good and a lot better than anyone else around and she has the greatest qualification, i.e she knows how to enthuse her pupils. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would be asked to talk to the children. She had been teaching the pupils various words to do with Christmas, but she needed a real Brit to talk about the differences between Czech and British Christmases.

I wasn't sure that I would have much to say, but of course as she and I chatted over her kitchen table the differences became clearer and clearer. It is strange to see your national customs through another country's eyes. So much that seems to you completely normal is at best novel to them and at times downright strange. And so I found myself walking into the school that I had walked past so many times on my way to the local minimart.

 The first thing I told the children was that we don't celebrate St Nicholas' Day (see my previous post), instead British children wait for the arrival of Father Christmas on Christmas Eve. The children were delighted to hear about Father Christmas (Jitka had taught them his name) and the need to leave a glass of sherry and a carrot for the reindeer, but didn't understand how he could come down the chimney. Czech houses have chimneys but they are fed by wood stoves not open fireplaces, so I showed them a picture of a fireplace in a British house. Then some bright spark asked if all English houses had fireplaces and I had to confess that they did not, but somehow Father Christmas still managed to get in!

I had brought my kindle tablet into the classroom and played the children a track of church bells which I had downloaded from Amazon and which, as it happens, was recorded at a small town near my English home. They were amazed by this. It is hard for someone so used to the peel of church bells as I am (my family home was 200 yards from the church ) to understand that this normal sound is something extraordinary once you step outside the UK. In the Czech Republic you seem to have either a carillon playing a tune or a simple tolling.

I talked about Christmas dinner which of course led into a discussion about what a pudding is. There is a Czech word - pudink - but it is for a blancmange type dessert.  And as for setting fire to it, well that caused some comment. Another area open to misunderstanding is Christmas crackers. In the Czech Republic if a child sees a cracker they think it is a cardboard container for sweets. There is no crack to be had, even if you pulled it. 

The final and, I presumed, weirdest British custom that I told them about was pantomime. I expected them to be surprised by men dressing up as women and the leading boy being played by a girl, but they took it all in their stride. Maybe it's because they are used to grown men dressing up as angels. I soon introduced them to audience participation and had them shouting "she's behind you" and "Oh yes she is!"  And so with a principal boy's slap to my thigh I congratulated them on their English and wished them a merry Christmas.

And so I will leave you with the same wish and this - a Czech advert about another difference between the English-speaking world's Christmas and the Czech one. They eat carp as their main meal not turkey and they buy the carp live, which means the man of the household has the duty of dispatching the carp on Chritstmas Eve:

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Christmas Celebrations in the Czech Republic

I am in Britain and it feels very strange. Normally I am able to have two Christmases - the Czech and the British. That is because the Czech Christmas starts with St Nicholas Day on the 6th December, when the squares and streets fill up with people dressed as angels, devils and St Nick himself. Excited children are asked by the three whether they have been good or bad over the year and are given their rewards (usually) or punishments. The shops are stocked with chocolate or marzipan versions of the three interrogators. In the Czech Republic Christmas lasts for weeks ending on 12th Night or Three Kings Day (more of the latter in a future post).

Last year I was in Prague for St Nicholas Day and found myself travelling on a tram filled with children and their parents heading for the city's squares. Also on the tram and travelling with the same purpose were a number of the seasonal characters. Actually there were more devils than angels and more angels than saints, but then the devil always has the best (and warmest) costumes and it was bitterly cold. A group of students sat at the end of the carriage half-heartedly sporting plastic red horns and facepaint, which could have been picked up in any supermarket. But some people take the business seriously. For part of the journey I sat opposite a man in the most impressive devil costume. His horns had formerly adorned the head of a ram. His clothes were made of leather, fur and sheepskin and his boots (in which he was presumably hiding his cloven hooves) were traditional leather Czech ones. The age of the boots hinted that this costume had been decades in the creation, an inheritance perhaps. The contrast with the students couldn't have been greater. 


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