For some reason, Santa Claus skips right over the Czech Republic on his annual present drop.
I made this startling discovery today when I watched a pre-school teacher hanging up the first of the Christmas decorations created by the children. I smiled happily (you know how I love all things Christmas), looking at all the glitter, the angels with their sparkly wings and golden hair, the shepherds with their… bishop hats… uh… the… devil… hang on…
The teacher saw my expression of wonder mixed with confusion, and asked if I wanted to take a photo, which I did.
I tried my best to communicate my intrigue in faltering Czech. Ummm… I know this, I said hesitantly, pointing at the angels. This is an angel… but who is this? And who is this? I pointed at the devil creatures and shepherd-like men. Actually, what I kept saying was “Where is this, where is this?”, because I got all grammatically befuddled, but she realised what I was trying to ask, and proceeded to give me a very confusing lesson on the Czech Christmas. Honestly, though, having looked it up since I got home, I have to say it wouldn’t have been much less confusing if she’d been speaking English.
The angel is an angel: fine.
The shepherd is not a shepherd, but a bishop-like figure called Mikuláš (pronounced meekoo-lash), who is the Czech version of St. Nicholas. THERE IS NO SANTA.
And the little black and red figure on the end there, well, he’s a devil named Čert (pronounced like chair, only with the ‘r’ rolled, and a ‘t’ on the end. I can’t say it.)
Mikuláš, Anděl, and Čert will apparently be wandering around the streets for the next few weeks in the run-up to their big day – December 5th. On that day, they will come to houses and schools to terrify lots of small children. Mikuláš is the central figure, dressed like a bishop and flanked by Anděl (dressed in white and carrying a scroll) and Čert (dressed in rags with a coal-streaked face, wearing horns, and carrying chains). Erk!
Mikuláš takes the scroll and reads out the names of the children, who approach him individually to say whether they’ve been good throughout the year. If he’s been informed of any bad behaviour, he’ll get Čert to publicly chastise the child – and if the crimes are really serious, Čert may drag the child off to hell in a big sack.
Apparently younger children get quite scared and start to cry, but you can’t really blame them. If I was 4 years old and that thing bounded in with its chains and horns, threatening to take me to hell, I might shed a panicky tear myself. There does seem to be a chance at redemption, though, by singing a song for Mikuláš, or giving him something made especially for him. In that case, the child will get a small gift – along with a piece of coal to remind them that their incidents of bad behaviour throughout the year have not gone unnoticed by this intimidating trio.
I cannot wait to meet them. I’ll be out searching for them in the streets of Prague over the next few weeks, and I am hoping and wishing that they burst into one of the pre-schools while I’m there. I’m so getting my photo taken with them. Not quite like my pictures with Santa of Christmas Past!
And that’s the Czech Christmas story, part one. I haven’t even got to the swimming pools full of carp, and the golden pig, and the bringing of presents by “the little Jesus” (in a non-Christian country!) – which, incidentally, happens on the 24th, not the 25th. That will all have to wait for another post, as my mind is currently blown to pieces with the whole devils-terrorising-pre-school-children thing.
December is going to be interesting this year!