A letter from Karen Moritz in the Czech Republic
I can’t believe it is time for the beginning of Advent already. It throws me off a little not to have Thanksgiving as the doorway into Advent. However, like the rest of the world, we here in the Czech Republic prepare to enter this festive season. We prepare for special worship services and various holiday traditions. Here in the Central Church Office we have begun discussing plans for annual Christmas parties and celebrations. Christmas cards and greetings are being prepared and will be sent to friends and family around the world.
Soon the Christmas markets will open all over town (in fact, a few have begun setting up in early to mid-November). Market stalls will fill the town squares and large Christmas trees will be set up in all the main sections of town. I look forward to strolling through the markets and looking at the local crafts and sampling some of the special holiday foods. My favorite holiday tradition is sipping a small cup of hot honey wine called medovina; one has to take the chill off somehow. Soon holiday lights will adorn the streets and people will begin their Christmas shopping in earnest. Holiday music will fill the shops and the marketplaces. The bright lights and decorations brighten the short gray days and the long winter nights. Everyone seems to get into the spirit of the celebration.
One of the Christmas customs that seems strangest to me is eating the Christmas Carp. There are carp ponds set up throughout the country that provide this special holiday treat. The week before Christmas vendors have large tubs set up around town from which you can purchase your live Christmas carp. One such vendor often sets up near the metro station in my neighborhood. Many Czechs still buy the carp live and take it home to reside in their bathtub until the fateful day of its preparation for dinner. Many a humorous story is told about children who think they have a new family pet only to learn that it is part of the Christmas feast. If you are a bit squeamish and unwilling to kill your own carp the vendor will do it for you. Supposedly there are 100 ways to prepare the Christmas carp, but many people fry it and serve it with potato salad. And of course one must wash it down with beer.
Many will be shocked to learn that Santa Claus isn’t really a fixture here. Many Czech children believe that the Baby Jesus (Ježížek) brings their gifts through the window (no fireplaces needed). However, there is no particular image associated with the Baby Jesus as there is with Santa Claus. In preparation for Christmas there are special visitors on St. Nicholas Day, which is celebrated on the evening of Dec. 5 (which happens to be my birthday) and the day of Dec. 6. St. Nicholas often makes an appearance accompanied by an angel and a mischievous character called Čert who wants to learn who has been naughty in the past year. These three often make unexpected visits to some of the most unexpected places, like the post office and other public areas.
Of course many of our congregations make preparations for the holiday. Worship is planned for the Sundays of Advent, Christmas Eve, and often Christmas Day. Many churches often have special worship services on New Year’s Eve as well. Special music is planned and special worship experiences for children are a part of the festivities. The church here also has favored Christmas hymns sung throughout the season of Advent. One of the best-known hymns is Narodil se Kristus Pán, The Lord Christ Was Born. It is a simple Hussite hymn written in 1505 and sometimes we sing all six verses! I’ll get to sing many of the Christmas hymns twice, in Czech and English. The Anglican congregation at St. Clement’s will also have a Service of Lessons and Carols during this season of preparation. I suspect we will also get the chance to sing Tichá noc, svatá noc (Silent Night, Holy Night).
Advent is certainly a joyous season filled with many new and familiar traditions. I think it is interesting to note that much of the sacredness of the season remains, particularly here in the Czech Republic, which is often called the most secular country in Europe. At least at Christmas it seems to be one of the most sacred, joyous, and wondrous countries in Europe. May each of you find this to be a season of sacredness, joy, and wonder in this often hectic season.
I invite us all to continue to pray that the love, joy, and peace of this season may abide here in the Czech Republic and with our churches and people around the world.
Přejdu Vám, aby pokoj i veselí o vánočních svátcích,
I wish you peace and joy in this Christmas Season,
The 2011 Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 200