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Blending Autumn Traditions

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We kicked-off our autumn this year with a podzimní party (autumn party) at Anna Lee’s preschool. The festivities were probably typical for the preschool, but my children and I were pleasantly overwhelmed by the fanfare of celebrating autumn that back in America we’d usually link to a Halloween party. There were autumn-themed games, including a potato-sack race, a chestnut toss, pumpkin carving and a blind-folded hunt to discern edible from poisonous mushrooms. Parents brought baked goods made from the fall harvest: garden plums, handpicked nuts and locally grown pumpkins. There was even a contest for the most original student-crafted kite followed by a dance performance and a balloon-art demonstration.

Since I’d read the guidelines for the kite-contest without asking Radek for translation help, I’d (not surprisingly) missed critical information regarding the kite’s purely ceremonial function. Instead, I’d bought a kite that would fly. On the day of the party, however, Anna got wind of the fact that her kite was supposed to be hand-made, so we had a last-minute arts-and-crafts session before the party when she created a paper-thin butterfly kite decorated with summer seashells. I convinced Anna to add a few drawings of pumpkins and a couple of nut trees so that her kite better fit the theme, but the end result was a vision of her own imagination.

Although Anna was disappointed that her kite didn’t win a prize, she was pleased by the prizes the teachers awarded everyone who attended the party. She and Oliver both enjoyed the messy art activities, like making cookie-cutter stamps from potatoes and decorating a podzimní strašidlo (autumn scarecrow) with their fingerprints. Initially, I felt out of place among the Czech parents, but I soon got into the spirit of the afternoon and even initiated a conversation or two with other parents. Exhausted from the fresh air and activities my kids went straight to sleep that night, while I sat up making plans for our own upcoming Halloween party.

Pumpkin culture has rapidly expanded to mainstream Czech supermarkets, green grocers and garden centers in recent years. Although I remember heading to the Red, Hot & Blues food store to purchase canned pumpkin for my first Czech pumpkin pie back in 2002, nowadays pumpkins are in nearly every neighborhood shop by mid-autumn. This year, in early October, our local garden center had held a well-publicized pumpkin and gourd display, selling pumpkins as well as carving kits. Although I bought a few decorative gourds there, we continued our 3rd-year-running tradition of visiting the Bykoš pumpkin farm near Beroun to purchase pumpkins for soups and muffins and a few larger ones to carve into jack-o-lanterns.

During our end-of-summer neighborhood barbeque, Radek and I had polled the neighbors to see if anyone would be interested in celebrating Halloween with us. We’d gotten a resounding “yes” although several neighbors had then asked me to explain what Halloween entailed.
Much like pumpkins, the Halloween holiday has been slowly gaining popularity in Prague, particularly among the expat-set. However, our neighbors up to this point hadn’t witnessed a Halloween event or the holiday’s tradition of door-to-door trick-or-treating for children. Radek kept using the examples of Velikonoce (Easter) and maškarní ples (masquerade party) to explain to our Czech friends what they could expect from Halloween.

When I made the guest list, in addition to our neighbors we also invited other “half n half” families who’d celebrated Halloween with us the previous year. From its inception, the party grew in size and variety of activities, with neighbors bringing everything from arts and crafts activities to lampions (paper lanterns) for each child to carry on the walk. Friends who didn’t live nearby also brought food, candy and treats, including a hand-made piñata to culminate the night’s festivities.

On the evening of the party, I was suddenly nervous that all the cultural traditions wouldn’t blend. However, once our downstairs filled up with children from toddler stage to nine years, dressed in costumes ranging from Harry Potter to princesses, cowboys and American Indians, I realized that my worrying had been unnecessary. While parents sipped svařák (mulled wine), children stretched on the floor decorating treat-bags for the neighborhood walk. People chatted and commented on each other’s costumes, and I began to relax. My nerves flared again in the chaos of dressing each child for outdoors and preparing the candle-lit lampions; however, when the children began their (safely chaperoned) trek through the neighborhood, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Since most of the children at our party, my own included, have never witnessed Halloween outside of the Czech Republic, it was interesting to step-back and analyze the blended tradition that our neighbors and friends created with their own cultural contributions. Certainly, there were elements of Halloween that I remember from childhood, but there were other new aspects, such as the lampion walk, which my neighbors declared was a tradition left over from the frequent public parades during the Communist reign. All the non-Czech parents approved of the twinkling lanterns, which likely wouldn’t have met North American safety standards, but definitely heightened the evening’s atmosphere.

I was particularly touched when I caught up to the children and overheard several of the older ones whispering about which song to sing next. Hearing the children’s voices singing Czech songs at each doorstep and discovering that our neighbors had even included some handmade goodies (traditional for Easter) among their treats, made me feel grateful to live in such a supportive neighborhood. Several of the Czech parents commented on how much fun the evening had been, and we agreed that next year we’d even try to rally parents to don costumes and join in the fun as well.

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