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Half-n-Half: Mikuláš

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Celebrating at the Sokolovna in Únětice

For the fourth year in a row, I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into as I celebrate the Czech holiday of Sv. Mikuláš (St. Nicholas). For the past month, my children grow wide-eyed each time we pass the cukrárny (sweet shops) window displays of chocolate figures in the shapes of Mikuláš (St. Nicholas) and his helpers, an angel and a devil. While I grew up knowing “the Devil” as Lucifer from the Christian Biblical tradition and seeing secular devilish creatures only on Halloween, in the Czech Republic, Mikuláš’s devil side-kick is a key component of pre-Christmas rituals. If Mikuláš reads in his ledger that a child has been naughty, the child does not only receive a lump of coal, but Czech tradition requires the devil to put the child in a bag and take him back to hell.

Though I’ve never seen the threat actually acted-out, many Czech parents use Mikuláš and the devil as kind of an awakening moment to point out a year’s worth of inappropriate behavior and scaring children into reforming.

At almost 4, Anna Lee is quick to remark to me that she wants a chocolate anděl (angel) not a čert (devil), and she declares she’s not going to be scared this year. I overhear her tell a Czech friend she isn’t going to let the devil take her off in a “pytel” (bag). She doesn’t mention worrying about going to “peklo” (hell), which at first surprises me since “going to hell” was a main concern of mine as an adolescent. However, it’s likely my priorities would have aligned more with Anna’s when I was 4.

After listening to an American Christmas CD with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, and hearing the story of “T’was the Night before Christmas” several times, Anna’s also been asking me a few questions about Santa Claus in the past weeks: “Can Santa see me when I’m on the bus, even if I can’t see out the windows because it’s steamy?” or “How does Santa know if there’s going to be a fire in the thing on top of the house so he can come down without burning?”

Anna’s been full of questions this holiday season, and it seems that she’s trying to work out a way that her Czech and American holiday heritage can co-exist peaceably. The activities surrounding the traditional 6 December holiday of Sv. Mikuláš have, in recent years, evolved (or commercialized) to run throughout the first week of December, which have given us plenty of opportunity to find a Mikuláš party to attend before we fly to America this Saturday. With that in mind, I readily accept a Czech friend’s invitation to attend a mid-week Mikuláš celebration in the neighboring village of Únětice. I figure it will be good for Anna (and me) to witness Mikuláš before we immerse ourselves in the American holiday traditions of my childhood.

Last year, we were staying overnight with friends in Vysoké Mýto (a town about 2 hours east of Prague) on the eve of Mikuláš. The lively festivities in the town’s main square included two horse-driven chariots, one carrying Mikuláš and his angels, and the other whip-bearing, chain-dragging devils, were the focus of our evening. Shops on the square gave out candy regardless of whether or not the children performed a song, and though a few devils came waving chains in the children’s faces, Anna didn’t have a one-on-one experience with Mikuláš. Frightened by the dressed-up devils, but comforted by the candy, she seemed to enjoy herself.

Still, after I agreed to go this year to Únětice, I had second-thoughts. Anna hasn’t attended a Czech školka this fall and I know she hasn’t yet practiced a song or rhyme to perform for Mikuláš. Although our friend assures us that Anna can sing an English song and surprise Mikuláš and the other children, Anna is afraid Mikuláš won’t speak English, and she doesn’t want to stand out. Nor does she want to sing one of the Czech songs that she already knows. I decide to leave our participation up to her, and a few days before the scheduled event she comes to me singing a new (to her) Czech song. Excited about the prospect of performing her song and seeing Mikuláš up close, I can barely keep her calm until the 5 o’clock start time.

When we reach Únětice, Anna runs ahead of me as I walk hand-in-hand with 18-month-old Oliver. We cross the street and walk along the car-lined sidewalk. This street is usually empty, but tonight it’s bustling with people. We follow a few other families up the steps and into the village’s Sokolovna (gymnasium) which is a large room connected to the village pub. The place is packed. I pay my CZK 30 per child and we find a seat in the last row. Most of the bigger children are seated on benches at the front of the stage, but smaller kids are scattered throughout the audience. Anna sits on her knees listening to Mikuláš and the angel as they introduce the program.

There are probably 50-60 children and at least that many adults in the audience, so it’s difficult to hear Mikuláš at first. The angel calls two children up to sing their songs and Anna bravely walks toward the front in anticipation of her turn. However, as soon as the second child finishes, the devil comes out, and silence falls among the children. Anna moves back to sit on my lap and several children begin to cry.

After letting the devil scare the children for a few minutes, the angel asks the children’s help to “charm” the grown devil down to a child-size one. When the crying child-size devil comes back on the stage, the children’s faces relax and some even begin to laugh. In the end, the children “charm” the adult-devil back after he promises to behave himself.

After eliciting promises for good behavior from all the children, the angel and devil work their way through the audience handing out gift bags and coal respectively to the children. Anna picks a lollypop for herself and chocolate for Oliver. When the devil comes by us with his coal, even dedicated-rock-lover Oliver shakes his head and refuses the coal. We watch children line up to get their pictures made with Mikuláš, but my children choose to dance rather than wait in the line for photos. Both Anna and I are disappointed that only two children are asked to perform their songs for Mikuláš, but Anna agrees to go home and sing the song to Radek instead. We leave just as the party for the parental crowd is getting underway, beer and conversation flowing, while the children chase each other through the hall.

All in all, the evening has given us another version of the Czech Mikuláš holiday, slightly different from those we’ve experienced in previous years. We agree that next year, we’ll find a party where Anna can be certain to sing her song for Mikuláš, and we head home to pack our bags and rest up for our journey to America.

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].

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