From the “Cancelled Czech Files”, for your reading enjoyment. Copyright 2009.
Back in Prague, the day of the Christmas Eve had always been a day of pandemonium. Our first Christmas in Princeton wasn’t much different. My parents fixed a Christmas tree in its stand. Its branches were thickly packed together and their bruised fragrance filled the room with a scent evocative of dark nights and cookies.
“There are no spaces for the candles,” my mother said with some concern. She was able to procure Victorian-era candles and tree candleholders, yet the tree seemed curiously ill-suited to accepting them.
“The Kliments say people here use electrical lights,” my father said. We all grimaced. Imagine that, electrical lights! How tasteless. How fake. And probably unsafe, what with people tripping over electrical cords, every spark from every short circuit waiting to ignite the evergreen torch while we were asleep. Candles were familiar and probably a lot safer to boot.
“Maybe we could weigh the branches down, train them to open up a bit,” my mother said. For three days prior to Christmas, the tree stood in the middle of the living room, its bushy branches supporting heavy pots and pans, meat cleavers and mallets hanging pendulously like bizarre ornaments of a homicidal giant in an effort to help the stubborn branches relax and open up enough to safely accept lit candles.
After three days of being unable to cook with her most commonly used kitchen implements, and not realizing much success in training the stubborn American Christmas tree, my mother snipped the extra branches out, trimming the tree to her specifications. Hanging ornaments was always her job, jealously guarded from well-meaning yet clumsy volunteers. She enjoyed it and she was good at it. It had to be perfect, worthy of opening the gifts deposited under it.
In America, most people open their gifts on Christmas morning. This makes good sense, for it allows the parents some slack in getting in their positions so they can perform their appointed task. Our family was willing to Americanize, but we weren’t willing to change the deeply ingrained ritual of opening gifts after dinner, and furthermore we were confused by new schedules and customs. And what was this talk of Santa Claus, anyway? Everybody knows that St. Nicholas came on his feast day -November 6th – and brought children fruit, nuts, and maybe a bit of candy. Coal, too, if they were naughty. He had no need to show up on Christmas, his job already being fulfilled. Christmas was the time Baby Jesus would magically deposit gifts under the tree while the family enjoyed their silent Christmas dinner.
“I saw St. Nicholas doing his rounds right by the Wenceslas Square,” my grandfather said, and a lift of his formidable eyebrow conveyed grave significance.
“I wonder if he will stop at our house this year. I wonder if you were good enough.” I wondered too. Maybe he would skip. Or worse, maybe he’d come escorted by the Devil and the Devil would take his belt and whip my butt for having been naughty, talking back, and not putting my toys away. Some kids said it happened to them, and being no stranger to the sting of the belt, I knew it could happen to me, too.
It was dark already when somebody knocked on the main house door and my parents ran all seven flights down the stairs to open. Saint Nicholas was asking for me. They brought him upstairs where I waited, dreadful anticipation freezing me in my corner in the kitchen, not knowing if he will be escorted by the Devil, and hoping he’d come and bring an Angel if I was especially worthy. He came in, looming in the doorway, awful and magnificent. He was dressed in a white robe, with a white tabard bearing gold crosses on the front and the back, a tall, white, gold-crossed mitre on his head. He bore a shepherd’s crook and some said he was known to discipline unruly children with it. He had unmistakable white hair and a white beard and white eyebrows, and a very deep voice. It didn’t do you any good to look him in the eye too much. Which is why my brother Patrik was looking down when he said, “Look, St. Nicholas has the same shoes as my grandpa!”
He asked if we were good or bad, and wanted to know what bad things we did. And this was good, because I got to confess to all pieces of property I broke, vandalized, or otherwise defaced, and was forgiven, and my parents looked on in amazement and couldn’t do a thing about it. It was amnesty time.
Then Saint Nicholas deposited a basket on the floor, instructing me to enjoy it, but to keep all chocolate, foil-covered figurines for Christmas. And I eyed the fresh oranges and apples with appreciation because they weren’t canned, and fresh fruit was rare out of season. Even better, there was the sweet thrill of dates, sweet and exotic, and I almost tasted the essence of places that were forbidden and far away.
None of that would happen in America. Saint Nicholas didn’t make personal visits and offer amnesty for broken vases or eaten raisins. No longer would I get to dress up as an angel with white cotton hair and paper wings, wearing my mother’s old ball gown, visiting the little kids next door and feeling like I was “in on it”. Instead, Santa Claus had it all organized and automatized, dropping gifts down chimneys from his supersonic reindeer-driven sleigh while servicing the whole continent in one night. It was a big-time operation. It was so very American.
Back in Prague, Grandma started baking cookies on St. Nicholas day in a steady and unchanging progression of varieties. They were stored in shoeboxes in grandma’s linen closet, and if not there, then among her sewing supplies. I knew every hiding place. They were so excellent. So rare. So good. The trick was not to filch too many, and to rearrange the layers so the pilfering wasn’t obvious.
“You were after the cookies again,” grandma would say occasionally. “I’m glad you like them, but we need them for Christmas. If we have guests, we need to offer them something special. And I can’t make more. There are no more hazelnuts this year. I had to stand in line for the little they had left.”
Three days before Christmas, my mother and my grandmother and I would go to a small open-air market. Giant wooden tubs of fish were off-loaded from trucks. They were big enough to swim in. The dark water within boiled with sleek fish, cold and glistening bodies of carp passing over and around one another in a never-ending dance. The fishmongers pulled the live carp out in a net and weighed it, wrapping it in old newspapers. The fish survived the half-hour walk home easily. The bathtub was already filled, waiting for our new guests. I always sat on the rim of the tub, fascinated by their graceful movement, by the slick slime covering their shimmering scales.
“You are not giving them names, are you?” my mother asked, concerned. “Once you name an animal it’s harder to eat it.”
“Mom, can’t we keep at least one? They are so beautiful.”
“And where would we keep them?” The corners of her mouth pulled up in a smile.
“We would dig a little pond in the lawn. And we could swim in it in the summer, too.”
“Like we could keep a horse in the garage?” she said, replaying her own childhood dreams, which strangely coincided with mine.
“Yeah.” We observed the hypnotic movement of the fish in silence.
“Mom, how about a fish tank. Just a little one.” I tried to parlay my fascination with carp into a fish tank request every year.
“No. Too much trouble, and your fish will all die.” True to form, every year she stood firm in her refusal.
“Remember how we watched that pond at Třeboň being fished out, when you were three?” Changing the subject from the fish tank was a time-tried tactic. “You were such a cute child, everyone gave you things. And this old grizzled fisherman, nobody would have guessed he would notice a little girl, he picked the biggest fish and gave it to you. Put it right in your arms.”
I remembered. The fish had felt heavy and tried to breathe air. It didn’t belong in my arms. It didn’t belong in the net, nor in those large tubs.
“And then you looked at him, looked at the fish, looked at him, looked at the fish, and you marched down to the edge of the pond and let it back in the water. And he was so mad, I thought he would say something, but he didn’t.” The fish belonged in the water.
I never felt sorry for the carp in our bathtub. I never minded watching my father kill them, breaking their thick spine with heavy blows of an ax in my grandmother’s kitchen. The rose and maroon entrails oozed from the cavities of their freshly killed bodies and my grandmother, careful not to spill the bitter gall, let me cajole her into extracting the double air bladder. It was like a slick balloon, floating in a bowl of water until rougher play punctured it.
When the killing and the gutting was over, my mother reentered the kitchen and helped scale the fish. Large, glistening, coin-like scales flew all over, stubbornly sticking to the chairs, to the walls.
“Put one in your purse, it will attract money,” my grandfather said. That’s how it was done in the village when he was growing up.
“If you only helped instead of talking nonsense, old man,” my grandmother spouted. “Now get out of the kitchen, you’re in the way.”
My mother set out to make soup from the heads and the skeletons while grandmother was breading the fish for frying. The potato salad was almost finished. The table needed to be set. And that very day, on top of all the killing and cooking, the tree had to go up in a separate room.
When I grew big enough not to believe in supernatural gifts, I was allowed to help my parents set up the tree. My father made it stand straight and tied it to tall furniture. My mother was the decorating expert. Heavy chocolates first. Then the candles in their clip-on holders. Then, heaven bless, more chocolates wrapped in foil. Then the glass ornaments, going from the largest to the smallest. Then the sparklers, their explosive-dipped wire positioned away from needles to prevent a fire. Then the final touch: thin gold chains and tinsel, always avoiding the candles, always reevaluating if a branch supporting the candle was sturdy and straight, free of obstructions which would threaten to celebrate Eternal Light in one glorious blaze.
Table was set in another room and, the Christmas Eve being a fasting day devoid of lunch, we all looked forward to a silent dinner.
Silent Christmas dinner not only honored the concept of “Christmas Peace”, it was also a medical necessity. Everybody ate fried carp, and carp has wicked sharp bones that will lodge in your throat as soon as you dare to speak up and ask your mom to pass the potato salad. So we would sit there and eat, very silent to keep sharp fish bones out of our throats, and also to hear the little tinkling bell from the Christmas tree, indicating that a divine visitation has taken place. The dinner seemed to drag on forever. There was the obligatory fish soup with croutons. There was the potentially lethal carp, which had to be eaten slowly. There was the potato salad, containing all kinds of goodies mixed in for a perfect balance of textures and flavors. For dessert we had a fruit compote, a bounty from the garden which my grandmother canned so conscientiously. Apricots, pears, gooseberries and currants floated in their juices, nestled in a smoky grey cut crystal bowl.
“The bowl is from the First Republic so don’t break it,” my grandmother would remind us, careful to protect her wedding gifts from better days. “They don’t make them like that anymore”.
The long-awaited bell would ring and we would turn off all the lights and go to the room where my uncle used to sleep, the tree dominating the universe in it’s highest glory, all cloaked in darkness except for the candles lit on its branches, the sparklers ejecting constellations with a gentle hiss. My grandfather sat at the piano and played old Christmas carols and we sang them while the stars shooting from the sparklers reflected in the glass globes and the candles dripped hot wax onto the resin-saturated needles.
“We should put those candles out,” one of the adults would say nervously after several minutes of real live fire hazard.
“Don’t worry, there is a bucket of water over by the coal stove,” my grandmother would inevitably reply. A flick of a light switch, and the incandescent glow banished ancient magic into the shadows of elder days.
Our gifts were wrapped in recycled, reused wrapping paper saved for several Christmases in a row. There were several gifts for each person and I always got a stack of books, a new sweater, and at least one cool thing to play with. Christmas carols played on the radio and the smell of frankincense, myrrh, and gunpowder still lingered in the air as we settled down with our books over a generous tray of Christmas cookies.
My mother set out to replicate our traditional Christmas experience here in America, and it was a gargantuan, if not an impossible, task.
“They don’t have live carp anywhere,” my mother said. “Apparently Americans don’t eat carp at Christmas.” The concept of keeping three large fish in your bathtub seemed, in fact, even eccentric. Americans didn’t know how to have a good time.
“That’s a shame.” I would miss seeing the carp swim back and fro, their graceful tails swishing from side to side, their full, firm lips opening and closing in a silent symphony with the movement of their gills. I would miss seeing my father chop their heads off with an axe, and watch my mother and my grandmother scale them, smelly fishy scales flying all over the kitchen.
“Remember that huge carp you let go when you were three? We sure could use that carp right now.”
My parents chickened out on the candle issue.
“It’s a rented house. Imagine if we burned it down. We might get evicted. We might even get deported!”
We lit the tree with electrical bulbs and hung ornaments from K-Mart. Then we cooked and cleaned and enjoyed some of my mother’s Christmas cookies. Until that moment I had never realized how much work goes into Christmas. Now that we were on our own, though, I was not only allowed to step into the kitchen, my help was even appreciated. I was, for the first time in my life, allowed to handle food. Nothing critical, mind you.
“Here, slice these pickles for me”, my mother would say while making the fish soup. There was a lot to do. Patrick and I set the table. Dad vacuumed. We all offered help, but we knew that Christmas had to be perfect and nobody can do it as well as mom can, so… our imperfect help was often deemed to cause more harm than good. We were allowed to glue jam cookies together, maybe.
At six-thrity, the dinner was served.
“This fish isn’t the same,” my mother complained. “It tastes different.” My father nodded in agreement.
“It’s still good, though. You did a great job.”
“And the cookies. I don’t have the right cookie cutters. The flour is different here, too.”
All that effort and pain and fatigue, and the Christmas dinner was imperfect. It was imperfect because it wasn’t the same.
We opened our numerous gifts. There was a lot of clothing, and house-wares, and power tools, and toys.
“We should call home again.”
“The lines might still be busy.”
Three more tries, and we got through. Grandma and grandpa on the other side sounded a world away, their voices chased by that odd, trans-oceanic echo old-fashioned cables used to make. Yes, they made fish and salad, and they had a small tree. Yes, grandma baked some cookies. Not as much as when we were there – there was no point in it. Yes, they received our letter and our gifts. The gifts arrived opened, the letters were reviewed by the police. We wished one another Merry Christmas carefully, aware of silent, institutional listeners recording our words.
“Did you know the mistletoe is different here,” my mother told her mother. “Its berries are smaller, and the leaves are formed differently. It’s not the same. Not as nice.”
In America you could only buy sad, preserved, dye-enhanced little sprays of Viscum Americanum. A poorer cousin of the Viscum Album that used to fill a large crystal vase. Certainly no substitute for a plant full of power that was to bring the whole house luck for the year to come, even enough power to have killed an ancient god. It wasn’t even medicinal.
“Does that fit OK? It looks good on you.”
“That’s a great book. Great drill bits.”
“Can we hook up that video game now?”
“You didn’t have to spend so much.”
We made do without candles and carp, without myrrh and mistletoe. This was an American Christmas. The food was plentiful and the gifts were abundant. And even the Christmas tree was nice – you could leave it on all evening long, no buckets of water necessary.
My parents sipped their wine at the table, their energy level spent. Patrick was shooting a skeet with a little ray gun on the television, and I put a record on my new stereo – it would stay in the living room for everyone to use, of course. What, was I crazy? Why would I want a stereo in my bedroom?
“This is not so bad,” my father said.
“No, it turned out OK,” my mother said, her relief at it being over having overshadowed her misgivings over traditional things. There was over a foot of snow outside and the Kliments were going to visit for a glass of wine and some cookies in a little bit.
People are adaptable. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as soon as we put those electric lights on that tree, we have begun a transformation process consisting of internal negotiations and compromises. We were adapting, and this American Christmas wasn’t so bad after all. In fact, it was pretty darn good.