27 December 2014

Ježíšek, Santa Claus and the difficulties of disorganised cross-cultural Christmas celebrations

This was the first year that L and I properly had to think about the Christmas magic and whatnot for Smalls. 

And it had some complications that we'll probably need to iron out before next year. Primarily: 

Thing 1: Who brings the gifts? 
In the Czech Republic, Ježíšek instead of Santa Claus brings gifts. 

Ježíšek is 'baby Jesus' - the Martin Luther-approved replacement for St. Nicholas. I haven't seen many pictures of him, so he seems to be something of a spirit-like being who magically appears on Christmas Eve, sets up the tree with many lovely ornaments and (for the true traditionalists and fire-enthusiasts) lit candles, then deposits presents, and finally, rings a little bell to let all the good little children know he has been.

According to the WIN-Gallup International Global Index of of Religiosity and Atheism 2012 the nations with the most 'convinced atheists' are, in order: China, Japan, and the Czech Republic. 

And yet the practically-secular Santa Claus has not caught on in the Czech Republic. 

A very scientific poll of my students revealed that none of them had had Santa Claus as children and thought the very notion of Czechs adopting the fat man in red was preposterous and would surely be a sign of the end times. 

I have several theories about this, but my favourite is: given the choice between an obese older man in velvet with a logically-flawed present delivery system and a complex network of toy-making slaves and a completely magical baby (incidentally, the baby whose birthday we are theoretically celebrating) who comes quickly and without all this 'naughty or nice' business....well, the winner is pretty obvious, no? 

Also, parents don't have to deal with early-waking children since Ježíšek comes right after dinner on the 24th. 

So, that decision was relatively easy.

Thing 2: What to do with Santa Claus?
I toyed with the idea of letting there be a Santa Claus who would bring a small present for Smalls on Christmas morning, you know, to help him keep his American roots. Also, he saw an episode of Peppa Pig with 'Father Christmas' and seemed impressed.

There are a couple of problems with this. Firstly, my formerly-fundamentalist Christian parents used to believe that 'tricking' us into believing in Santa Claus would cause us to mistrust everything else they had told us about God, Jesus, and the church. And so, I grew up without the belief in Jolly Old St. Nick.

Come to think of it, perhaps this explains the high levels of atheism in the Czech Republic.
Parent: Darling, there is no Baby Jesus. 
Christmas figure and religious beliefs knocked down in one fell swoop.

So, in short, I don't have any fond memories of really believing in Santa Claus, so it isn't something that I strongly felt the need to pass on.

Additionally, there were some cultural complications. While Ježíšek doesn't seem to keep some list of the naughty deeds of Czech children, there is someone who does. 

Mikuláš (aka St. Nicholas) comes on December 5th to give small gifts and impart judgement on Czech children. He is joined by an angel and a devil and the trio visit homes and weigh up the goodness of those within. 

I find the concept a little strange and L shared the trauma of the year he received a potato for being bad, so I wasn't too desperate to celebrate this tradition.

But then J came home from his nursery singing about Mik Mik Mikulááááááááš and talked excitedly about him bringing presents, and it seemed too mean to not celebrate Mikuláš with him.

On the other hand,  Mikuláš, Ježíšek, and Santa Claus all bringing presents seems like an awful lot of gifts for one December. Also an awful lot of shattered beliefs in years to come. So, Santa Claus was out.

Thing 3: What to do about Peppa Pig's Santa Claus Indoctrination?
This is still to be decided.

Thing 4: What to do about our neighbour?
This is a tricky situation, which is made slightly less tricky since we decided not to embrace Santa Claus. 

Our next door neighbour, a staunch defender of Ježíšek (though not of pacifism and childhood wonder) has an effigy of dear old Santa Claus, bedraggled, hanging from his roof, and shot full of arrows.

'That is Father Christmas,' Smalls confidently told me. 'Ho ho ho. Merry Christmas.' (Oh, the power of Peppa). 'He should be up.'

'Oh, it's just a decoration,' I said, pushing him quickly into the house. 'But it does sort of look like Father Christmas, doesn't it?' (In a cheery voice, while considering kicking the neighbour).

The bedraggledness of Santa suggests he is an annual presence.

Best way to approach neighbour still to be decided. Probably best way to approach Smalls should also be considered.

Thing 5: What to do about us?
Now that Smalls is getting older and more aware, L and I will have to up our game. It's all well and good for me to bitch about our neighbour, but this year L and I had two major incidents.

The first one was with Mikuláš. We told Smalls that everything his teachers had told him was true, he would meet Mikuláš on the 5th. Some friends in the village had arranged a visitation at our local church (which seems much less scary than inviting the devil et al to our home).

So, Czech friends were polled about what sorts of presents Mikuláš brings (a few sweets and very small treats, with possibly a potato as a warning), these presents were dutifully wrapped, and Smalls was informed. Excitement levels were high. 

So high in fact that there was a rather large collapse as we were trying to quickly leave the house and by the time we were all in our coats and out the door, we were already 15 minutes late.

'Don't worry,' I said. 'It's a children's programme. They'll be running late.'

'Už skončil!' [It's already finished!] One of our neighbours informed me as I was trotting to catch up with Smalls and L after locking up the house. She was heading back to her house with her very-pleased grandson who must have been very good. And also blessed with a grandmother who can get him out of the door in time.

Sorry, Smalls.

The second incident happened after we deposited Smalls with his grandmother so we could secretly buy a toy crane that he had been coveting. Unfortunately, a small corner of the box slipped out from under the blanket we had thrown over it.

'Huray!!!! There is crane!!!!' Smalls yelled as soon as he got in the car for the ride home.

'Oh, no,' I said. 'You must be mistaken.'

'No, it is crane!' Smalls said. 'To je crane.' (Helpfully translated into Czech in case that would aid my understanding).

I snuck it inside under my coat and hid it, but Smalls knew what he'd seen and spent the rest of the day intermittently calling for the crane ('Craaaaaane! Where are you?') to crying on the stairs because the crane was gone.

In desperation (and guilt), I explained that Ježíšek would bring it back when it was Christmas time. 

And so three weeks later when the bell rang, Smalls screamed out, 'Ježíšek!!!!! Bring crane!!!!'

Only 11 more months to improve our organization and stealth. At least we have Smalls's birthday without the additional complication of mythical gift-giving figures for practice. 

02 December 2014

Offending, Expat-style

The first time my (very lovely and also very American) Dad visited me in the UK, he generously offered to buy the round of beers, walked up to the crowded bar in the slightly rough pub and ordered two beers.

There are many conventional ways to make a 'two' with your fingers in order to make yourself understood in, say, a noisy environment. Czechs tend to make an 'L' with their fingers. Brits tend to make a 'V-sign' with the palm facing out. Americans tend to make a 'V-sign' with their palm facing in.

Now, let us compare the American 'two' with the British equivalent of the American offensive 'middle finger'.
And that is how you get your daughter and son-in-law to buy all of the drinks for the rest of the trip.

While we're being vulgar, it struck me the other day that American offensiveness is very, erm, penis-centric. Perhaps times have changed since I lived there, but I can't remember ever seeing the female-equivalent of the lovingly-detailed male-bits that (male?) graffiti artists seem to feel should adorn every bus stop, school building and blank garage door.

However, ladies, no need to feel left out here in the Czech Republic. Czech (male?) graffiti artists draw female bits, too! I'm tempted to put an illustration here for the non-Czechs, but I'm not sure exactly how offensive it would be.

What I do know is that should you have a blackboard that a Czech friend decided would benefit from having a bit of female-bits graffiti added to it and you have 20 minutes before L's parents arrive, L will choose to spend 20 minutes thoroughly scrubbing off every last trace of the graffiti instead of vacuuming the living room.

So, I will just say that should you be having a competition in one of your classes, and should you be in a goofy mood and you draw a star like this on the board:
And then Team 1 wins the competition, so you want to make your star into something like this:
(You know, to emphasise that Team 1 did well), and so add an American-style '1' to it, like this:
Even the nice, mild-mannered girls who sit in the front of the class will start giggling. 

Fancy grabbing a beer with me, Dad?