23 December 2015

Unexpected kindness and the Spirit of Christmas in the Spring

'First, there will be snow,' Smalls told me the other day. 'And then it will be Christmas. And then Santa Claus will come with presents.'

Unfortunately for him, this December seems to believe it is March, and there hasn't been a single flake of snow for at least a week.

I was trying to think of a good Christmassy story, and perhaps the lack of snow is why I keep thinking of the spring.

This past spring was very rough for me - a late-ish miscarriage followed very closely by an unexpected bad diagnosis for my dear old dad. And so, in an effort to keep myself sane, I spent a lot of time working on our garden.

One of the key attractions in our little village is a trade/vocational school where students focus on practical avenues of study such as mechanics and horticulture. In the spring, the school lets some of the students co-run a little nursery shop in a series of sheds and greenhouses on the school grounds.

I'd heard that the plants were both healthy and cheap, so I set out with Smalls one morning to investigate.

The students of the trade school can generally be identified as the loiterers at the bus stop, smoking a variety of substances and giving each other piggy back rides while squawking loudly. 

Smalls, of course, finds them fascinating. 

I was poking around the collection of sheds when one of the roughest of the students came sauntering up.

'Dobrý den,' he said. And then he said something else that I didn't quite understand. Possibly, I was too dazzled by the multitude of piercing sparkling on his face.

'Omlouvám se...' I began with a touch of desperation.

'Ah, English?' He said.

'Yes, please!'

'Hmmm, today.......now.......no,' he said, searching for the words and picking them with apologetic care. 'Zitra.....tomorrow?.....yes, tomorrow. Tomorrow, yes.'

I thanked him. He smiled and waved.

The next morning, true to his word, he was there again and the shop was open. He helped me pick out some plants and gave me some advice about where to put them. 

'Tohle je lepší. Better. This one.'

At the end, he tallied up my purchases, then ran back to the greenhouse and returned with two cosmos that I had been eyeing up, but had passed over since I wasn't quite sure where to put them.

'To jsou velmi dobré. Good. Many....flowers,' he said with a soft smile. 'A zdarma pro vás. No....money.'

My two free cosmos found a very nice home in my front garden and bloomed all summer and late into the fall. A cheery reminder of unexpected kindnesses whenever I went through the front gate.

I haven't seen him around the village lately, with his scruffy hair, his collection of piercings, his shy smile, and lines of scars on his inner arm. 

I hope things are going well for him and that he also has had someone give him just what he needed 'zdarma, no money' at a time when he maybe didn't realise how much he needed it. 

And that is my unseasonable-seasonable story. May all of you be as lucky as I have been to receive perfect presents throughout the year. Merry Christmas!

12 December 2015

Christmastime and the chocolate devil

One of the first tell-tale signs of the Coming of the Christmas Time in the Czech Republic is sudden proliferation in shops of many little devils.

Not just the charming shoppers themselves, but The Devil Himself, most often embodied in chocolate and foil.

One of the many chocolate devils on offer (this one from Chocoland.cz)
The Czech word for him is Čert and he, along with Anděl (an angel) and Mikuláš (St. Nicholas), he pays a visit to Czech households on the 5th of December. Good children get fruit, chocolate, and small gifts. Bad children get potatoes, onions, coal....or worse.

 'Čert is a very good tradition,' one of my colleagues told me with a nostalgic sigh. 'When my children believed in him, they were so good.'

Much of the Mikuláš tradition is very similar to Santa Claus and his infamous naughty-or-nice list, although Mikuláš himself seems to be much less jolly....and less despotically autocratic as well. The Czech Mikuláš hears both cases for and against the child and judges accordingly.

This is perhaps a positive first introduction to the judiciary system.

But it still leaves us with the uncomfortable presence of the terrifying Čert. I couldn't bring myself to tell Smalls stories about Čert in spite of my colleague's glowing endorsement of the devil as a disciplinary threat.

Heck, I still feel a little guilty for telling Smalls that it was Santa Claus who brought him the advent calendar and small present at the beginning of December. And I feel my cheeks burning a bit when I tell him that he could try asking Ježíšek for the little guitar that he's currently coveting.

I am not very good at this lying business. Even if it is in the name of childhood wonder.

Fortunately/unfortunately, Smalls's classmates seem happy to impart what they know of childhood terror.

'Čert is hiding,' Smalls told me a few nights ago during bathtime. 'He hids in the dark. He will catch me and take me away. And eat me.'

'Oh?' I said, buying time.

'Yes. It's true,' Smalls said. And repeated the story again for emphasis.

Smalls, at three-and-a-half, seems pretty small to be believing in dark satanic feasts.

But, he also seems a little too small to be trusted with truth of Čert. I pictured him imparting his wisdom to his friends...which was quickly followed by visions of angry, bedraggled mothers accosting me when I picked J up from school chanting, ' 'Čert is a very good tradition, Our children used to be so good!'

'Čert, you know, is a coward, really,' I said, aiming for some safe middle ground. 'He's always hiding and slinking around. If you tell him, 'You're very naughty! You need to leave me alone, you horrible Čert!' he'll run away.'

Smalls seemed a bit skeptical, but I later overheard him explaining to L what he should do if accosted by Čert, so I'm relatively hopeful that I've bought us a little more time.

And even better, apparently one of Smalls's friends turned to her mother during the whole Mikuláš charade and whispered, 'This doesn't seem very real.'

This brings up the excellent possibility that it will not be my child who ultimately exposes Čert as a foil-covered fraud.

And so I find myself hoping quite enthusiastically for the growing skepticism of other people's three-year-olds.