My children’s hopes of having some face time with the legendary Santa Claus was buoyed by a few Santa-sightings in the days immediately after our arrival in America. But it didn’t take long for reality to sink in. Although Santa made scheduled appearances at the mall and the local drugstore, waiting in line for an hour or more long seemed to be unavoidable. Each time we edged toward the designated Meet-and-Greet Santa area, long lines of frazzled parents and impatient, unhappy children deterred us.
Assuming my nearly 4 and 1 ½ year-old-children weren’t old enough to really care whether or not they sat on Santa’s lap (as goes in the American tradition) or just caught a passing glimpse of the fellow, I steered them away from the seemingly endless lines. From the sidelines, we could occasionally pick a seated Santa-character out of a sea of children and anxious camera-wielding parents. After hoisting both children in-turn up on my shoulders for a quick sighting, I mentally marked that activity off our to-do in America wish-list and breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t exactly the encounter I’d imagined, but it would have to do.
Although I love the pre-Christmas traditions and the festive holiday atmosphere, I couldn’t get my adult-self too excited about waiting in line to see Santa up-close. Since we’d already had our Czech Mikuláš celebration before we left for America, I felt obligated to show my kids the American cultural counterpart, but even at her young age, my daughter Anna Lee didn’t seem eager to wait in line and commented, “Now Mommy is it going to be the ‘real’ Santa or are we just going to see another ‘pretend’ one dressed up like Mikuláš?” I let the conversation drop, hoping she would catch a glimpse of the magical spirit of Christmas before the holiday was over.
Over a month ago, just before Thanksgiving, Anna Lee and her father made out a Santa-wish list in Czech. Their list included a few items Anna mentioned she’d like (a new hairbrush, a baby doll and a necklace) and certain behavioral traits that Anna would like to work on (i.e. helping pick up her toys, being kinder to her younger brother, going to sleep by herself). Radek and Anna agreed that before Anna could actually submit her list to Santa, she’d have to earn 7 stars for good sleeping habits.
Their excitement over making the lists (one for each member of our family complete with behavioral incentives) seemed to overshadow the importance of the items that they actually recorded. The idea of working on good behavior prompted a few nice conversations about being thankful for our family and appreciating the helpful things we already do for each other on a daily basis. I was relieved that Anna’s expectations of Santa didn’t seem specific or unreasonable.
Things were going well, when I made the mistake of taking Anna and Oliver into the shopping mall in Zlíčin in early December to buy some last-minute gifts for our relatives in America. Stopping in front of a Sparky’s toy store, Anna exclaimed with delight over a particular My Little Pony toy in the display window. She made such a fuss insisting that she would ask Santa for it and refusing to leave the store when I told her it was time to go that I lost my patience.
Fed up with her tantrum, I told her that Santa couldn’t possibly bring all children everything that they asked him for, and it wasn’t certain if Santa would bring all, or any, of the toys, on her list. This, of course, prompted more tears from Anna. I mentioned that some children weren’t fortunate enough to receive anything from Santa. Frustrated to the point of tears myself, I dragged both the children out of the mall and vowed to avoid all shopping malls and toy shops indefinitely. Once we’d both calmed down, I re-visited the subject long enough to say that I hoped that Santa would bring her something that she would like, which seemed to relieve her. In retrospect, I wished I’d kept my cool and waited until we were home to calmly discuss Anna’s expectations from Santa, since it really wasn’t Anna Lee’s fault for being enticed by fancy holiday toy displays.
Child-centered marketing was everywhere in Prague, including special holiday pamphlets at the supermarket and holiday television commercials. Santa Claus, himself, made his first organized shopping mall appearance last December at the Chodov mall in Prague, and for several years a phone both has been set up at the traffic circle in the Dejvice neighborhood so that Czech children could place a call directly to their gift-bearer Ježíšek (baby Jesus) and relay their wish-list. Without a question, the holiday marketing-hype is unavoidable.
When we arrived in America, the commercialism was tilted to an even grander scale. Not only were there the long wait-lines for Santa, there were also twice as many toys displayed in the supermarket. After watching a morning cartoon one day, Anna came upstairs to my mother and exclaimed with utter sincerity, “Grana, did you know you can buy everything you need to put under your Christmas tree at Wal-Mart?” We chuckled, but I made a mental note to curb Anna’s television time.
As a special pre-Christmas treat one afternoon after our repeated attempts to meet Santa had failed, I agreed with my parents to take the children to a Hands-On Learning Museum in a nearby city followed by a visit to spectacular charity lights display set up on the grounds of the local NASCAR Motor Speedway track. The children loved the museum’s interactive exhibits, particularly the dinosaur-display and the performance stage, complete with music and costumes. It was a thrill to watch them exploring each new exhibit with gusto and a relief to have a respite from Santa-related conversations.
Afterward, we had a quick dinner at a restaurant and headed back to the car to check out the Christmas lights display. On our way out the door, Anna’s eye caught an outlandishly dressed group who had just arrived. Anna stared at the group until an older woman dressed in a Mrs. Claus hat and apron and a few men wearing reindeer antlers came up to her.
Without prompting, Mrs. Claus said, “Little girl, do you want to see Santa? He’s just parking the car. I’ll call him.” Speechless, Anna nodded gravely yes.
Within minutes a stout, bearded gentleman appeared. He got down on his knee to chat with Anna, and Mrs. Claus handed him a sack. Pulling two bears out of his bag, Santa asked Anna if she’d been a good girl. She nodded again. Before giving the toys to the children, Santa asked my permission.
At first, I tried to stop him, but when Santa said he’d like to give them, I was silent. After receiving her bear, Anna said thank you, gave Santa a hug and sang her Czech Mikuláš song for him. Santa gallantly replied that he’d heard that one a few times before. We took a picture and wished the group a very Merry Christmas before heading off to see the lights. The lights were as magnificent as the hype, but my mind was still on Santa.
In spite of our careful planning, we’d actually experienced a much greater thrill from our impromptu visit with Santa than we would have by standing in a line. My wish for the kids to see an American Santa up-close was more than fulfilled, and I was reminded, once more, that sometimes the best gifts are unexpected surprises.
With the holiday season well underway, I’d like to extend my warmest wishes to all Half-n-Half families and readers, for a “true and good” holiday (words from the Grimm’s Brothers’ story “The Elves and the Shoemaker”). Enjoy the blessings of the season and look for our guest column next week and more Half-n-Half stories after the New Year.
Half-n-half invites readers to send us your own half-n-half stories of the holidays, (Mikuláš, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s or otherwise) to [email protected] We will collect your stories in a special holiday edition of Half-n-half to be published after the New Year in the Prague Daily Monitor.
Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please send comments to [email protected]