Close your eyes for a moment and conjure up the most traditional Christmas scene you can imagine. Perhaps you see tall huddled houses, each with its rich icing of snow. Flickering lamps in windows providing a hearty glow. A picturesque old town square, with rosy-cheeked children bundled into winter clothes, hurling snowballs. Bespectacled old men and women tottering by, benevolent smiles on their lips. Skaters whizzing past and falling with gales of laughter to the ground. A perfectly-formed snowman, complete with carrot nose and eyes of coal. And above all, a sky of indigo with polished stars.
If these scenes correspond to your actual experience, count yourself lucky. I grew up, like all the children around me in Wales, with these scenes imprinted on my mind, but it never really occurred to me as a young boy to ask why I never saw anything like this in my own town. Sure, we got snow on rare occasions, but usually the salty sea air saw to that, before we could build up much of an armoury of snowballs. The round missiles I pelted towards my brother’s head would more often than not break up in mid-flight and flutter harmlessly to the ground. Meanwhile, our feeble attempts at snowmen often melted in a single weak-sunned afternoon. No, the place portrayed in the Christmas cards was another country.
It was only when I arrived in Prague as a teacher many years later that I suddenly realised what had happened. Our entire range of images, in fact the entire iconography of Christmas had been lifted wholesale from central Europe while no one was looking. Here at last were those very scenes I had gazed at throughout my childhood. To wander around this exquisite old city in December was to step into a magic Christmas card, to be transported to the neverland promised in all those colourful tableaux.
Christmas starts early in the Czech Republic. On St Barbara’s Day (December 4th), a cherry tree is taken inside the kitchen and put into water. The branch then bursts into bloom during the Christmas season. This is considered good luck. If the girl tending it is of age and not married and the branch blooms exactly on Christmas Eve, she will find a good man and marry him within a year. I’m not sure if my girlfriend at the time (who is now, I am happy to say, my wife) found a cherry tree. If she did, it must have been a slow-bloomer: she got me anyway, lucky girl, but not till many years later.
The big day for children in that part of the world is the feast day of Sv. Mikulas (St. Nicholas/Santa Claus) on December 6th. On that day, Sv. Mikulas walks around in his long red robe, accompanied by an angel holding a large book and a quill pen, followed close behind by a devil rattling large chains. Sv. Mikulas asks the children if they have been good during the whole year. The angel writes down their answers in the book. A good child has to sing a song or recite something for Sv. Mikulas. A naughty child is told they could be put into the devil’s sack and taken to hell. (Ah, the ruses we dream up to keep unruly kids under control.) If you’ve been good you can expect candy, nuts, fruit and small gifts in your shoes. If, on the other hand, you’ve been a pain, expect potatoes, rocks, or lumps of coal. The tradition is that most children get at least one rock, as no child is perfect. Obviously they never met me.
So the moral is: if you’re good, you have to walk round with fruit, nuts and candy in your shoes, whereas if you’re bad you get a potato or a rock to throw at someone? I know which option I’d have chosen as a boy.
In the run-up to Christmas Day in Prague, the city comes alive. Winter markets where you can sip mulled wine by candlelight, stamping your feet to fight off the cold, and eat sandwiches slathered with lard and raw onions. (I can tell you’re tempted.) You open your presents on Christmas Eve, and then head for an atmospheric Midnight Mass.
At lunchtime on Christmas Day, the traditional meal is carp and potato salad. Back then we bought ours from a market, but in most families the carp is kept fresh in the bath in the days up to the meal, which must make taking a bath a slippery experience. I don’t think the potato salad is kept there too, but I may be wrong.
All the while the snow falls softly to the ground on all the cobbled streets around, banking up against the church doors, muffling the footsteps of the passers-by hurrying through the silent, dreamy city.
Quite a contrast from the Christmases I looked forward to so much as a boy. The excitement always began when we were allowed to write letters to Santa Claus asking for presents. I found one of mine the other day, asking in six-year-old handwriting marginally more legible than mine is today, for a sundry assortment of toys, but ending with the coda: “PS. Lots of sweets”. Depressing to see that in almost forty years I’ve changed so little in my culinary tastes. We would receive an Advent Calendar on December 1st with one little chocolate hidden behind each of the 31 miniature doors. The idea was to open one door per day and reward yourself with the treat tucked away inside. I think my record was to reach December 6th.
I can’t remember quite when I stopped believing in Santa Claus (was I 33, 34?) but back then the arrival of this jolly figure at parties, complete with his sack of presents, was always a joy. If we were really lucky, there might even be a trip to London to one of the famous toyshops such as Hamleys, where you could go into Santa’s Grotto and tell him about all the presents you wanted, sitting on his knee. Yes, I know what you’re thinking, but in those days it was allowed.
Around the same time, the TV programmes would take on a more festive feel. You could hear the sound of carols in the shops and the warm tones of the Salvation Army brass band in the market place. Being Welsh, we were also inspired to be musical ourselves. I remember one particularly fine year when, having newly discovered the clarinet, I teamed up with two other boys on trumpets and we went round the neighbourhood playing carols. We thought we were quite excellent, and yet our diabolical parping probably drove at least one resident insane. I blame the winter air, which rendered our instruments out of tune. These days we’d probably be sued on account of the emotional distress caused by our merrymaking.
Christmas cards would be pouring in by now. There was the family ritual of sending cards to all our relatives, sitting around writing out envelopes from my mother’s well-thumbed old address book, and of course the tradition of decorating the stairs with tinsel and setting up the Christmas tree with fragile coloured baubles. As the big day approached, we’d leave out a mince pie and a nip of whisky for Santa, and then begin the impossible task of getting to sleep. The slightest creak on the stairs of my parents heading for bed, towards midnight, would be met by the bundle of energy that was your correspondent aged eight shouting, “Is he here yet?” May I take now this public opportunity to apologise to my dear parents for terrorising them in this way?
And then of course, Christmas Day itself. Tearing open the wrapping on weird and wonderful presents. Particular favourite memories for me all these years later remain a spectacularly useless game in which robots boxed each other’s heads off and a ruler shaped like a big foot, but all these were eclipsed by my first golden saxophone a few years later, which must have delighted the entire street.
There would be visits from neighbours and family all day. One set of neighbours gave me a bar of soap (not the same one) every year for about ten years. Was this a hint? The soap was put in the same drawer as the strangely coloured socks, unwearable ties, and the other soaps. If I’d been Richard Branson, I’d have started a post-Christmas bazaar. But alas, I was destined to be a teacher, not a billionaire, and these goldmines lay gathering dust in my bedside drawer. Amongst those mundane gifts, what gems there were, too: the coloured football annuals, the magical adventure books, and let’s not forget the sweets.
Then on with the best clothes for the church service. The religious element never really meant much at that age. Perhaps I’d been scarred by the experience of having to play third shepherd as an infant. Standing there in my dressing gown with a makeshift headdress, terrified I’d forget my line. (I had to exclaim ‘Lo!’ at a key moment, imbuing it with lots of feeling). In the end, the service was, for me, more about trying (and failing) to create harmonies for all those familiar carols. I did hit a few notes previously uncharted by western musicologists, but otherwise it was not a great success.
In food terms, the highlight was the traditional late lunch of chicken or turkey with all the trimmings, ravenously wolfed down, except brussels sprouts (which, and I remain convinced, were a culinary form of divine punishment). An evening full of our favourite comedy programmes on TV, and then the tremendous rush would begin to die down, with, back in those days, at least three days before you could race to the shops to spend your money, your record and book tokens. Today, half the shops are open the next day, if not on Christmas Day itself.
This leads to my last Yuletide tale, probably the least commercial I’ve ever experienced. We were working years later in Eritrea, at a school in a remote valley four hours on foot from the nearest town. No jingles, adverts, or cards in sight; although I suppose the camels pulled by nomads did bring to mind the three wise men. Undeterred, we managed to catch the choir of Kings College singing their carols on the radio, and our students helped us create a makeshift tree of acacia branches covered in coloured bits of cardboard box, carefully cut into the seasonal shapes of stars and angels. A sad spectacle, but we were proud of it.
In the capital of Asmara, we might have eaten spicy chicken and drank homemade beer, and attended a service at the Italian-built cathedral on the main avenue, but there in our valley we had to create our own festive spirit in the glaring sunshine. For food, we had only goat and popcorn, washed down with strong, freshly brewed coffee and locally made wine. Not the most traditional meal I grant you, but one we relished nevertheless, having eaten only lentils virtually every other day of the year. A surprise package from home arrived at the last minute, containing a whole bag of toffees. We solemnly ate one of these each per day, making them last a good 15 days this time. In one sense at least, I had progressed slightly in the long journey from my childhood into middle age.
As evening fell that festival day and the frogs began their twilight chorus round the lake, we wished each other a merry Christmas and vowed never to take the season for granted again. At the same time, there in our darkening valley in the moonlight, far from the baubles and the jingles, we realised how simple an occasion it can be. A time to understand what really matters: taking part in celebration with people you love. It’s an experience shared in a multitude of different ways by every culture the world over.Powered by Sidelines