Taken from my company’s monthly newsletter, and, originally, from my brain.
When I was eight years old, two Czech university students, Kristýna and Martina, came and lived with my family. They brought me storybooks in English from Josef Čapek and told me stories of the Christmas carp swimming in the bathtub.
Excuse me while I make a note never to eat this.
Hold up, what? You mean to tell me Czechs get a big fish (and let’s ignore for now the fact that it’s an omnivorous fish that eats anything it can find including but certainly not limited to mosquito larvae, sludge worms, bloodworms, dead fish, mud, and plants [Ok, that wasn’t really ignoring it, I’m sorry]), they put it in the bathtub, let kids make friends with Christmas dinner, then bash it over the head, and serve it on the most celebrated day of the year?
Well, that’s different.
I mentioned this article to my Czech roommate and she told me how every year her father would buy a carp for Christmas up to a week in advance, bring it home, and put it in the bathtub. The carp was a sort of a temporary pet for her and her siblings to play with in the days leading up to Christmas before helping to kill it Christmas morning. (I blame this for the fact that my roommate sees no sentimental value in pets. For example, she brought the family goat home to our apartment in the form of a sausage the other day.) Fine. This is all well and good up to the point where she described getting the carp from the tub to the kitchen.
“Well my father, he would pull the carp out of the bathtub, but it was really slippery you know, and sometimes it would wiggle out of his hands and land on the floor of the bathroom. And you know bathroom floors, no matter how often you clean them, there is always hair on the floor. So the carp would be there, flapping on the floor, getting hair stuck to it. We thought it was hilarious.”
Oh to have grown up in a Czech village…
The truth is, I love Czech Christmas traditions. No, I won’t be eating carp this year, or any other year, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t see the value of other Czech customs.
It must surely be as fun as these kids make it seem…
For example, I think I might shake an elderberry tree this year and wait for a dog to bark, then follow his bark to my future husband. I might have to wait for a while, and maybe go find a garden, with a dog, next to an elderberry tree, but besides that I’m sure Lady Luck will sort me out. I like the fish scale trick too—that carrying one in my wallet will keep my money from running out. That is a very handy tip; maybe then I can finally take that trip to the DinoPark in Galerie Harfa…
My favorites though, are the extra place set at the Christmas dinner table for a person in need or an unexpected guest and the parents secretly decorating the tree. The extra place I really like because it’s wonderful that Czechs think of others during the holiday and prepare (even if metaphorically) to help anyone who may need their help. And the tree I love because my favorite part of Christmas has always been the element of surprise, the building of anticipation, the moment of reveal. I used to wake up so early on Christmas morning and run to my parents’ room. “Come on, wake up! It’s Christmas!” I’m sure they were less than thrilled to be woken up at sunrise, but I know they loved the excited look on my face.
It looked similar to this kid’s face upon getting a Wii for Christmas.
Yes, that feeling was much easier to come by when we were 5 or 6 years old, but we still feel it in smaller doses, when someone gets us an unexpected gift, when we get wrapped gifts and can’t tell what’s inside, when old friends call to wish us merry Christmas. So I hope you all have a season full of excitement and anticipation of the good things to come. And, whether you have carp or ham or turkey, veselé Vánoce!