One of the advantages of staying in the Czech Republic this year is taking part in pre-Christmas Advent events, such as this weekend’s sv. Mikuláš (St. Nicholas). Although the Advent season in the Czech Republic is formally observed from the fourth Sunday leading up to Christmas Day, the holiday season is kicked into high gear with the December 5 arrival of Mikuláš, a bearded figure dressed in a bishop’s robes with a staff and miter (bishop’s hat).
Accompanied by čert, a horned devil with rattling chains and anděl, a winged angel, Mikuláš traditionally visits homes to assess a child’s behavior and, if necessary, warns him to mend naughty habits before the arrival of the gift-bearing Ježíšek (baby Jesus) on December 24. Mikuláš traditionally brings small gifts, such as fruit, nuts and chocolates, to children with good behavior who are willing to recite a poem or perform a short song, while the devil threatens any misbehaving child with lumps of coal and potatoes.
While Ježíšek is an imaginary figure whose image has thus far escaped commercialization, images of Mikuláš and his cohorts abound in Czech Christmas paraphernalia. To a non-Czech eye, the image of Mikuláš is similar to the old-fashioned images of a slim, bearded Father Christmas which are common in America. However, confusing Mikuláš with the jolly, red-checked, round-bellied figure of Santa Claus warrants quick-correction from any Czech. Even my young daughter, Anna Lee, knows the difference between the two figures and readily points out that Santa Claus isn’t Czech, although she’s still hoping that the American Santa will find his way here to visit her.
Growing up in the US, I experienced the German version of the St. Nicholas tradition, a beloved yearly ritual which was initiated by my father’s German mother. On the evening of Dec 5, my grandmother always insisted that we set out a pair of shoes (she recommended choosing the largest boots we had), in preparation for St. Nicholas who would come once we were asleep, leaving treats we’d find in the morning. Now knowing that my children will have to sing for their treats, I feel especially spoiled by my grandmother’s tradition which didn’t require any participation beyond choosing the shoes.
This year Anna Lee’s školka is holding a special Mikuláš celebration. The children are supposed to dress in costumes representing the figure of Mikuláš, a devil or one of the two female saints Barbora or Lucie, who are angel-type figures. Anna and I prepared her costume tonight, and she was adamant that she would be an angel like the ones she’s seen in photos of Mikuláš events, which meant that my suggestion to wear her Tinker Bell dance costume was met with sheer disdain. Instead, she’s decorated a gauzy summer skirt and a flowing white tee-shirt with red heart stickers, packed wings and a halo for accessories and wants a gold star on her forehead.
Since no mention was made at school about the Mikuláš event, beyond a flyer I happened to notice taped to the bulletin board, I’m curious to see whether all the other children arrive in costume. I’m also eager to hear Anna’s description of the party since I know it’ll be the first time she’s celebrated this holiday with her own contemporaries. Before I realized that Anna would have her own school party, we agreed to celebrate with some of Radek’s friends who’re gathering on the evening of December 5 for a group Mikuláš event, held at a café in Prague. Both Anna and Oliver have told me that they’ll sing English songs for Mikuláš, but I’ll be surprised if they don’t bow to peer-pressure on the spot and come up with a Czech song. I admit I’ve spent more time playing English carols around the house, since those are the ones that I’m familiar with, but I’m certain Anna’s learned a few Czech carols from school.
Although group Mikuláš events have become increasingly popular in recent years (last year we attended one in a neighboring village), I found a just-published article from the Voice of America news warning the Hungarian Mikuláš to take extra-precautionary steps this year when greeting large groups of children. With ongoing outbreaks of the swine flu in Hungary (as well as neighboring Central European countries), health authorities have asked Mikuláš and his helpers to avoid kissing children and shaking their hands. The officials used the publicity from the upcoming Mikuláš celebrations to publicly encourage Hungarians to take advantage of the available swine flu vaccine. While I haven’t read any similar reports in the Czech news yet, most Mikuláš events will take place over the weekend, so officials here may still respond similarly. Hopefully, hygienic concerns will be properly addressed with common sense so that this beloved children’s holiday can be safely enjoyed this year.
Along with our Mikuláš celebration this weekend, we’re also gearing up to decorate our house with a few outdoor lights. Driving through our neighborhood this past week, I’ve listened while the children happily pointed out all the houses, trees and bushes trimmed in lights. Although the lights and Christmas decorations in downtown Prague always amaze me, this year I’m equally impressed by the individual creative efforts of our neighbors. Being away for the holidays last year, I hadn’t realized that several houses had spruced up their gardens with lights, and both the children and I are eager to add our artistic efforts to the festive spirit of the neighborhood.
As the Advent season gets underway, I hope to visit Old Town square and shop the Christmas markets while sipping svařák or hot chocolate, but when the evening comes to an end, I’ll be glad to slip away from the crowds and head back out to our village, my path home led by my neighbors’ twinkling lights.