My grandfather was notorious for his random Christmas gifts. One year he gave all the grandchildren identical blue piggy banks shaped like postal drop boxes. Another year he brought home bubbles and pop-guns. The nosier the better as long, as we did it outside.
One special Christmas, he brought home miniature cars that he’d gotten at the furniture store where he worked. He gave me a New York Times news truck and my brother got Wonder Bread delivery truck. I never actually played with my car, but I liked what the truck symbolized, so I kept it. As I moved, first to North Carolina for university, then to an internship in Washington D.C. and then to my first “real” job in San Francisco, the truck came too. After San Francisco, I lost sight of it. This summer though, my mom found the truck in my closet at home and offered it to my sons. They brought it back with them to Prague.
They play with it occasionally, but it doesn’t wind up or spin around like their Hot Wheels cars, and it’s not a remote control like the car Oliver got for his birthday. It’s simply an old-fashioned rolling toy, no bells or whistles. Still, my boys like it because it was mine, it’s old and it looks different from their other cars. My grandfather’s idea of shopping was walking a few minutes to the nearest local store and picking something that caught his eye with the money he had in his pocket. He aimed for the element of surprise. As the Christmas season comes this year, I’m trying to replicate his light-hearted holiday attitude.
Traditionally, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. It brings all the warmth and cheer of Christmas, without the stress of gift-giving. I’ve enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving even more in the Czech Republic than I did at home. It was always a chance to get together with good friends, to bond over mutual tradition, and to experiment in the kitchen with substitute ingredients. Years ago, items like sweet potatoes, fresh cranberries, soft brown sugar, pecans or cream of mushroom soup required trips to several stores around the city. It was an adventure, more than a headache, again, namely because of the element of surprise. If I couldn’t find nice sweet potatoes, I’d try to think of what other Thanksgiving dish I could substitute instead.
Recently, many larger supermarkets carry my “specialty” holiday items, so the surprise element has come instead in the people with whom we share our Thanksgiving meal. Thanksgiving in Prague has always meant an international group, usually other friends from mixed marriages or friends of friends that we don’t see on a regular basis. It’s traditionally a large pot-luck affair with everyone contributing something special to the meal, as well as good conversation. Since Thanksgiving is an American holiday, it’s also meant that Radek and I don’t argue about whose traditions are going to take precedence this year.
Yet, this year, with my focus set on spending Christmas in America, I simply forgot about Thanksgiving. By the time we received the email invitation from a friend, I’d already planned Anna Lee’s eighth birthday for the same afternoon. Although I regretted missing the communal Thanksgiving, I couldn’t imagine disappointing Anna Lee since we’d already given the invitations to her friends. So, instead of preparing sweet potato casserole, cheesy broccoli casserole or cranberry apple bake, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I scoured the internet for a template to make a gymnastic birthday cake with real marzipan figures at Anna’s request.
Anna is a Christmas baby, born on December 24, and she implored me to bring out the Christmas decorations early so that her friends could appreciate the festive holiday spirit that should accompany her birthday. Upset that our decorative autumn leaves and Halloween pumpkins were still out when the streets of Prague were already glittering with sparkling lights, shooting stars and illuminated Christmas trees, Anna and Oliver eagerly decorated their miniature artificial Christmas tree in Anna’s room, complete with “packages” they made for under the tree. They placed my grandfather’s toy car under the tree too – because it looked like “olden days.”
Oliver took charge of our Nativity Scene, carefully unwrapping the figures from their tissue paper and placing them one by one around the wooden barn structure. At first glance, I complimented his arrangement. Later, I realized he’d stuck the camel in the barn with Mary and baby Jesus, while Joseph led a flock sheep nearby. The wise men were flanked by the cow and the donkey, and one lone sheep climbed the roof of the barn to get to the Angel Gabriel. Pleased with his efforts, Oliver left the Nativity to rearrange my wooden Santa Clauses.
Although they’ve complained a bit that we’re not having a Christmas tree this year, since we’ll be spending the holidays in the US, they have been keenly watching the holiday transformations happening around us. They love the brightly lit streets, especially when dusk falls by 16:30 these days. The garden center near our house has been carrying truckloads of live Christmas trees to their shop while another green grocer’s near Anna’s gymnastics lined up a slew of 3-foot artificial trees in colors of green, white, silver and blue. We’ve even seen some cars with Christmas trees lashed on their roofs. What lucky families, my children remark.
During the month of November, I’ve noticed friends posting on Facebook lists of things they’re thankful for. While I haven’t gone so far as to characterize my list of thanks, I’d like to take a moment in the spirit of the Thanksgiving we missed to say thank you.
I’d like to thank my husband and children, my parents and grandparents for showing me how to celebrate the spirit of the holidays, by keeping it simple and making room for surprises. I’d like to say thank you to all of our friends who’ve hosted us on Thanksgivings past and to friends who’ve included us in other holiday celebrations, making it really feel as if we’ve got an international family in Prague.
I’d like to say thank you to organizations like Class Acts, the website Kids in Prague and the expats Facebook group PACK for providing English-based programs, story-telling and informal meet-up activities as well as serving as invaluable resources for international families like mine. Through organizations like these, my children have been able to realize that there are many bilingual and international kids living in Prague who share similar hopes, dreams, fears and struggles. As the years go by and Prague becomes more and more of a home for my family, I’m grateful for the many different ways we’ve been able to integrate our traditions and celebrate blended holidays.
Next Saturday, December 8, at 4 p.m. at St. Clement’s Church, there will once again be a chance to join Prague’s bilingual community to sing traditional Christmas Carols with an organ and a small children’s choir. The program will include English Christmas Carols and some Czech classics. There will be refreshments afterward at Klimentská 18.
If your children are interested in practicing beforehand, the carol list should include:
O Come All Ye Faithful
Good King Wenceslas
Ding Dong Merrily On High
The First Noel
I Saw Three Ships
We Three Kings
Nesem Vám Noviny
The Holly and the Ivy
O Little Town of Bethlehem
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Joy to the World
Once in Royal Davids City
Narodil se Kristus Pán
Hark the Herald Angels Sing
Silent Night (simultaneously in Czech & English)
We’re planning to attend, and it’ll be the first time my children have sung Christmas carols in a Czech church. I imagine they’ll be wide-eyed and full of questions, but the element of surprise should ready us for the holiday season ahead.