Tune in for a special Xmas edition of Magazine - which can serve as a crash course for foreigners who are spending their first Xmas here and who may find things a bit strange at first.
The Czech Xmas lasts for three days - the 24th, 25th and the 26th during which time you will see your hosts pass through several states of mind and body- from frenetic activity, to all encompassing good humour to gluttony and finally to total apathy. In the pre-Xmas rush men and women have separate roles - the man must venture out to secure a tree and a carp - both of which can be found in the streets of Prague. Foreigners with a queasy stomach have a terrible time in the run up to Xmas because everywhere they look they see carp in the process of being selected, weighed and publicly executed. If you feel that this is excessively cruel, it might do you good to spend a few hours at any emergency ward in the Czech Republic on Xmas night. Around 9 o'clock is a good time. You'll see a stream of Czechs coming in to have fish-bones stuck in their throat surgically extracted. Or else you could walk down to the river side and watch people making their way to the water carrying very active plastic bags and setting their Xmas carp free at the eleventh hour. I am not sure why Czechs insist on having carp for Xmas dinner when it involves so much trouble -except that it's a tradition and they simply couldn't imagine Xmas without it.
If you're joining a Czech family for Xmas -try to fast for at least ten days in advance because you will be expected to eat a great deal. You will find tables groaning under the weight of food - since Xmas baking is a big thing in this country. It starts three to four weeks in advance and many housewives make as many as 14 different kinds of Xmas cookies. There is no way you will be able to get out of trying them all - and praising them all. Czech hospitality knows no bounds - so expect to be asked over and over to have a little more of this and another helping of that. Followed by a concerned "don't' you like it?", "we have more than enough". Of course your hosts will be happy to give you a helping hand. Xmas cookies - are only made once a year - and the idea is to get your fill of them until next Xmas. If you want to cut down on calories, eat nothing until 5 pm -and tell your hosts that you want to see the Golden Pig. This is an old Czech Xmas custom and your hosts will admire you for entering into the spirit of things.
Most Czechs are generous present givers -especially on Xmas - and although you hosts will be delighted with any symbolic gift you care to bring -do not be surprised to see the Xmas tree obscured from view by presents. And not all of them the kind of presents you yourself might choose as a Xmas gift. Electronic appliances are still greatly in demand - so in addition to clothes, jewellery, books and toys you are likely to see a steam iron, electric toothbrush ,TV set, freezer or DVD being unpacked. If you see big boxes of pills making an appearance do not assume that a family member is seriously ill - Czechs are being encouraged to consume a vast amount of expensive vitamin supplements and immunity boosters. Kids have their own Xmas hits every year - besides new mobiles that is - and this year the number one hit was bugging devices, possibly inspired by the huge bugging scandal in Czech politics earlier this year. Czech parents can thus rest assured that their children are not wasting their time and are doing their best to prepare for a successful career.
If you are staying with a Czech family on the 25th, prepare for a walk around town, possibly mass and a big lunch - with the whole family gathered together. /Minus teenagers that is, who of course can't stand being with the family and need to escape every few hours to be with normal people./ There's another little thing I should explain. Czechs love watching fairy tales at Xmas and they are capable of watching as many as six to eight a day. I don't mean children - they think fairy tales are yukky and prefer to watch Robocop - I mean grown ups. Now Czechs are inclined to be cynical for 362 days a year. But at Xmas time they just go back to being kids. Maybe they think - well, no matter what the world around us is like on that one day a year we want to see good triumph over evil. So they watch all the fairy tales made since as far back as the 1950s and every year Czech TV throws in a few more new ones to surprise them with. As a result over the three Xmas days the TV programmes on most Czech channels - public as well as private - are an endless list of fairy tales. What foreign visitors find truly inexplicable is the Czechs enthusiasm for a Russian fairy tale called Grandfather Frost. It is broadcast every year and watched with delight by millions of viewers who all know it by heart. Although for decades Czechs hated all things Russian with a vengeance - Grandfather Frost is a bright exception. Ask any Czech why they love it and they will tell you : "It is so naïve and stupid that it is downright beautiful!"
On December 26th you should prepare - yes, you guessed it - for another big lunch. Czechs usually choose from traditional dishes - roast duck, schnitzel /which is a pork chop fried in breadcrumbs / with salad or the popular svickova /beef with cream sauce and cranberries/. If you are still with the family in question expect to meet a lot of their relatives. Great aunts, cousins once removed, twice removed, several times removed, and other long lost faces. You can sit back and study this social phenomenon with detached enjoyment - because they are not your relatives. Unless you are extremely young looking the chances are you will not get your hair tweaked, your cheeks pinched, told how much you have grown and asked whether you have a girlfriend yet - and what a pity young people are putting marriage off for so long these days. I am sure that you will detect many similarities with such meetings in your own country - just in case you'd started feeling homesick.
December 27th -you will find - lacks the warmth of the previous days. It is the day that Czechs have to go back to work. Which means forgetting about fairy tales and struggling into clothes that appear to have shrunk by several inches. By that time the kids have broken most of their Xmas toys and the frequency of skirmishes indicates that the reserves of goodwill have been completely exhausted. On December 27th most people breakfast on dry toast and very strong black coffee. If you should happen to meet them - remember to ask how their Xmas turned out. And don't expect a "How are you?" to be answered with a formal "Fine. How are you?" Here if you ask a person how they are - they are going to tell you - in great detail - especially if they got a fishbone stuck down their throat on Xmas eve. They need to get it all off their chest - before they start making plans for New Year's Eve. Think you can handle it? Oh, and Merry Xmas!