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Christmas Carp

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There’s a fish swimming in my bathtub. He reminds me of one of Dr. Seuss’s whimsical characters, but this fish is alive, not a cartoon. The kids went nuts when Radek came into the house with a jiggling plastic sack. They followed him upstairs with babička in tow to watch the big-whiskered kapr (carp) get acquainted with his new domestic surroundings. Presumably he’ll stay in the tub until the day after tomorrow when he’ll go from temporary pet to the main course of our Czech Christmas dinner. I don’t know how Radek’s going to explain this to the kids, but it’s not my tradition.

Being a party-pooper, I didn’t react to the fish’s arrival. Instead, I kept chopping vegetables in the kitchen. I removed myself so thoroughly from the excitement upstairs that when I went to use the toilet a half an hour later, I nearly jumped out of my skin when I saw the dark fish shape gliding through the tub. I actually had to leave the bathroom and go downstairs to pee, since I couldn’t get over the surprise of a fish watching me. The fact that Radek had told me it was possible for the carp to jump out of the bathtub and that the situation had happened to his family a few times growing up, probably added to my squimishness.

This wasn’t my first experience with a live carp. When we celebrated Christmas Czech-style in Prague three years ago, Radek brought a live carp home before dawn on the morning of Dec 24. He’d been out in downtown with friends, and when he saw a carp vendor who was tending his tank through the night to make sure the water didn’t freeze, Radek made his late-night purchase. He got a few laughs by looking at the surprised cab driver’s face on the way home when the plastic bag between Radek’s feet kept twitching. I remember showering and bathing Anna Lee while the carp looked on from his cramped position in a bucket. Anna was awed by the live fish, although neither she nor I much cared for the taste of the breaded and fried version. I thought the fish tasted muddy like it’d been swimming on the bottom of a pond, which, of course, it had.

When Radek said he was planning to buy a live carp again this year, I tried to convince him to let one of the fish vendors do the butchering, be-heading and gutting, but my strong-minded husband dismissed the suggestion with a shrug and a mischievous chin. Even when all our neighbors confessed that they prefer to buy a live carp and stand by and watch while the carp vendors do the butchering, Radek declared that a proper Czech Christmas required a live carp in the bathtub. Although he said he wanted to the children to enjoy the tradition, I suspect his nostalgia for childhood memories was a key motivating factor.

During the days leading up to Christmas, it’s nearly impossible to walk through Prague without running into a carp vendor. The vendors and their blood-splattered cutting tables are as much as part of Prague’s Christmas atmosphere as are the Christmas markets in Old Town and Wenceslas Square. Both are representative of Czech culture. Arguably the carp vendors are more geared to attract the average Czech than the markets are, although I personally find elements of both intriguing. I haven’t seen many tourists stopping to buy live or butchered carp, although the fish stands near downtown usually draw hordes of curious visitors who experience the tradition vicariously. Carp memorabilia in the form of pocket knives and carp-shaped ceramic baking dishes are sold in shops downtown for tourists who want a lasting memento of the popular Czech tradition.

This past week, Oliver and I stopped at the fish tanks set up outside our local shopping market. The tanks looked like tall-sided, kids’ pools, and when I first lifted Oliver up to peek down into one, his expression of utter delight made one of the otherwise gruff vendors laugh. Decked in a plastic-apron over a winter jumpsuit and cradling a mug of steaming coffee, the bemused vendor chatted with a nearby tree salesman and tuned the radio. Being a fish vendor looked a mundane job (when no one was buying a fish).

After Oliver watched the vendor spray his carp with fresh water for a few minutes, he exclaimed, “It’s a beautiful fish, Mommy. I’ll eat it up.” Surprised that Oliver made the connection between the tank filled with swimming carp and the fish he’d later find on his plate, I just smiled and nodded affirmatively. Since no one was buying a fish at the moment, we skipped the butchering process and walked on into the store for our shopping.

Although I know many Czechs who think that carp isn’t a particularly tasty fish, they would no more eat another fish for Christmas dinner than an American would eat chicken for Thanksgiving. One or two of our neighbors confessed they eat baked trout or řízek (breaded and fried pork or chicken cutlet) for Christmas dinner; however, by and large the meal of tradition is carp. Although carp is eaten by Czechs at other times during the year, it is most commonly served on the Christmas holiday.

One year while we were living in the States, Radek and I tried to find carp so that he could share his tradition with my family; however, in the end, he had to settle for breading some catfish, since carp was nowhere to be found. I’ve heard that markets in New York City carry carp around the holiday time for the Czechs, Slovaks and Polish who live in the city, although I’ve yet to see this firsthand.

After not tasting carp for a few years, I’m curious to see how my taste buds greet the delicacy this year. Since I know the carp is as much about the tradition as it is about flavor, I’ll gladly sample a piece with my Czech-style Christmas dinner. My family will expect nothing less.

Whether you’re celebrating this holiday season in the Czech Republic or in another country, I hope that the festive spirit of the holiday, which for my family is embodied by a live carp swimming in the bathtub, lives strong for your family this year. Best wishes for a joyous holiday season and look for more “half n half” stories after the New Year on January 8, 2010.

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