Today is December 20th, only a few days before Christmas but the holiday spirit has yet to materialize and at this point I doubt it will. It could have something to do with the weather. My internal clock screams winter and although the leaves have long since fallen the November feeling has yet to leave. After the inversion last month we’ve had sun and rain; days reaching up to sixty degrees and nights hovering around nil, but as of yet, the only snow I’ve seen has been imported from the mountains on the roofs of cars. Today has a wintery potential – there was frost on the far side of Vitkov Hill: I saw it as I struggled up the north face which is all but perpetually hidden from the sun. This tiny bit of frost isn’t snow and what’s Christmas without?
Christmas all comes down to snow. Of all the Christmas’ of all the 27 years of my life I can’t remember one that wasn’t proceeded by snow. Last year in Germany we had the whitest Christmas that I imagine I will ever have – walking home from church in the dark, thick white flakes piling up in the yards, and having brunch as the snow piled up around us. However, this year there hasn’t been a sustainable flake. Once I saw snow falling was from my window and in the five minutes it took me to get to the street it had turned back in to freezing rain.
Yet despite the weather the signs of Christmas are all around and yet none of them have affected me.
The first sign of Christmas , other than the occasional shop decorating in vain attempt to spur their sales, are the christmas markets. Earlier this month red-roofed, wooden stalls began popping up overnight like grooves of mushrooms in all of the cities squares, followed shortly by stout pine trees of various size and species which were planted into the sidewalk via holes dug under the paving stones. Every square in the city (and some strange alleyways) has market and nearly all are hawking the same wares: fuzzy slippers, gloves and hats; pressed wood and blown glass tree decorations; tea, candles, candy and assorted knick-nacks and brick-a-bracks.
The bigger markets may feature stages where choirs of young Czechs sing Christmas carols or guitarists play folk music. Or have metal workers crafting decorative swords and pendants over open air furnaces walled in by crowds of onlookers. I saw one create an iron rose petal by petal. It’s beauty fading each time the metal began to cool and it’s vibrant orange wilted away, only to have the furnace breath life back into the dying flower.
Most importantly, there is food. Vendors serve hot-mulled wine and Tradelnik, a traditional pasty made by roasting spirals of dough on a rotisserie over hot coals. Young men with leather aprons and pimply faces churn giant vats of Halusky – the potato, cabbage and bacon dish that’s won my heart. Old married couples work as a team to prepare Langos – the savory-disgusting pizza of fried dough, garlic butter, ketchup and cheese. Other vendors candy nuts, heat mead or roast sausage. People come to eat, drink and revel – not to buy – and in so doing create a convivial atmosphere in the spirit of the holiday. Yet the markets haven’t been able to instill the spirit of the holiday in me.
The biggest Christmas market is at Old Town Square where their booths are twice the size of every other market. Their tree is also the biggest, towering above the festive crowds as if trying to rival the looming cathedral spires. The Christmas season officially starts here with the lighting of the tree. I attended the ceremony last year and will never do so again. It started out well. Three friends and I joined the thousands of people flooding into the Christmas market. We were late but still managed to get close enough to watch the brief light and music show that proceeded the Christmas season. But once the show was finished, there is nothing left to do but leave. This was impossible. While we had been watching the show thousands of people from all around us had been pushing forward into the square. Upon turning to leave we found that the city had made no provisions for leaving – there was no police presence or streets maintained to exit. Thousands of people were still trying to get to the center of the square pushing in from all directions.
Once it became apparent that we couldn’t get out, the crowd quickly became panicky and started pushing back. The crowded mass of humanity is savage beast, a force of nature. Several times I felt the breath forced from my lungs as hundreds of people forced their weight upon me. The currents of people were as treacherous and powerful as the sea, switching directions suddenly, splitting couples; dragging children away from their parents and knocking down the weak. I saw several people faint from the heat and pressure while others were knocked clean off their feet by the weight of the crowd. I went in with three friends and emerged alone, taking an hour and fifteen minutes of fighting to cover five minutes worth of pavement. But that’s not so different from America, eh? Where each year someone is brutally beaten over the last Tickle Me Elmo or trampled trying to be first into the Black Friday sales. Sometimes the holiday spirit is aggressive and frightening.
The closer we’ve come to Christmas the more small things begin to change in anticipation. The florists change their product line and there are a lot of florists. In a city where the only things open all night are a few select (Vietnamese run) convenience shops there is an all-night florist at Andel servicing who knows what sick crowd of besotted husbands arriving well beyond their curfew. Now the flower vendors sell three varieties of holly: natural, gilded and silver coated; wreaths, and pine-themed bouquets.
Similarly, small conifer forests have sprung up all around the city (as they would in any city) to supply us with our Germanic need for pine trees to grace our living rooms. In a typical year there was nothing more apt for turning my heart towards the holidays than the crisp smell of fresh pine sap overcoming the stench of exhaust, garbage and cigarettes – the pine scented air a gift to all of us urbanites. But this year, while it is still pleasant, it has failed to move my heart.
It’s gotten so close to Christmas that the carp salesmen have finally emerged. This is the last thing to happen in the season because, really, how long can you let a carp swim around in your bathtub? Yup, this really happens but not as much as one would hope. While many families still eat carp for Christmas dinner, most allow the fish salesman to kill, clean and quarter the animal for them rather than taking on the task themselves. That doesn’t diminish my interest in passing the salesmen positioned at markets, tram stations and intersections: their blue tubs brimming with carp from the size of a large eggplant to those longer than my arm. Their gasping mouths slurping at the water’s surface vainly searching for a last meal. I had carp for Christmas dinner last year. It was fileted and boiled. The broth was nice but the fish was itself had the consistency of mashed potatoes and no flavor. I wouldn’t try it again despite the traditionalist selling it by saying, “If you let it soak in milk overnight it doesn’t taste like mud.” I can see the slogan now, Carp! It doesn’t taste like mud!
This year all the Czech traditions that were so new and exciting last year are old news. I know of the legend of the Golden Pig who you will see if you don’t eat anything on Christmas. I am aware that Czech girls stand with their backs to the door and throw their shoes at it – those whose toes point towards the door will get married in the coming year. I’ve heard that three carp scales under the dinner plate will bring wealth and that apples cut in twain can also divine the future. I’ve made small floating candles from halves of walnut shells to represent the members of my family and been inspired by their flickering light as they burned in a bowl of water. I’ve sampled some of the thousands of varieties of Czech Christmas cookies that keep the women here busier than my mother with her butter letter. None of it gets me any closer to Christmas.
Besides, what’s Christmas without snow? Nothing. So tomorrow I will be in Tel Aviv celebrating Christmas Israeli style.
To everyone who’s had some snow and will be having a Christmas I wish you the very best the holiday has to offer.