Traditionally at Christmas in the Czech Republic, the family gathers for dinner on the 24th, eats themselves silly and then Ježíšek (Baby Jesus) somehow causes presents to appear under the tree. Presents are distributed by the youngest member of the family and then everyone gathers round the TV for fairy tales. What could be simpler?
In order to complicate things, we weren’t sure whether to have a Czech Christmas or a British one (on the 25th). In the end, as you will see, we had no choice but as the 24th approached, all was calm and quiet… except in our flat where some quiet panic was in evidence.
Our Lass was feeling the pressure of being her mother’s daughter. Czech women seem to be under constant pressure to provide unending supplies of luxuriously cooked food as well as looking after the baby, cleaning the flat, mending clothes, taking the dog for a walk, maintaining an image of wealth and opulence and taking care of their menfolk. Most of this pressure seems to come from their mothers and may be a contributory factor to the level of obesity among Czech men. I’ve often heard Our Lass trying to explain to her mother that I’m actually rather healthy and the fact that I don’t have a stomach halfway to my knees is a reflection of her healthy cooking not lack of domestic skills.
Be that as it may, this Christmas was to be a first in many ways. The first in our almost-completely-renovated flat, the first with Our Kid and the first with us as the hosts. My parents had made the hazardous journey by budget airline and it was my fault that their bedroom was still a workshop, not Our Lass’ but that’s not how her mother saw it.
‘I’d die of embarrassment if guests of mine arrived to find the flat in such a state!’ She exclaimed, steadily increasing the pressure on Our Lass.
As further evidence of Our Lass’ wifely inadequacy there was the overwhelming lack of carp in the bath. Carp is the traditional Christmas dinner over here, cut up and fried in breadcrumbs with potato salad on the side. All over the country in the few days leading up to Christmas, small plastic pools are set up in town squares, outside shops, near public transport hubs, anywhere reasonably flat and level in fact. In these pools, sleek carp live out their last days in blissful fishy ignorance of the sinister undertones behind the interest being shown in them.
Once selected by a customer, they are netted and removed from the pool and carried off in a string bag to the family bath, where they can be kept fresh until it’s time to batter them to death, chop them into steaks and flash-fry them. On account of the fact that my parents are not big fans of fish due to the bones and carp is a notoriously bony fish, our bath was, for mother-in-law at least, humiliatingly carp-free.
To make up for this piscine inadequacy, Our Lass was industriously mixing dough for vánočka, a delicious bread/cake affair with almonds on top. She had added yeast, left it to rise on the radiator and started to feel ill. She continued to feel more and more ill throughout the evening and throughout the cooking process, until she was all but incapacitated and we tried to force her to go to bed.
Our Lass, however, was having none of it. This was her first family Christmas as hostess, her first delicious bread/cake affair with almonds on top and above all, a direct challenge from her mother. The gauntlet had been well and truly thrown down and she sure as hell wasn’t going to be stopped by a virus that couldn’t even be bothered to kill her. We had to call on my Dad to help her plat the strands of cake because there are 4 of them and we only know how to do it with 3 but at last it was baked and ready. Then Our Lass and her distressed stomach crawled into bed, all set for the Glorious 24th.
Come the morning and I felt awful. I had breakfast and an hour later spent 20 minutes bent over the Great White Telephone to God until I had no more breakfast left. Following Czech wisdom I had a healthy shot of slivovice because, as the logic goes, if it’s a bacterial infection the alcohol will kill it and if it’s a viral infection the alcohol won’t make you feel any worse than you already do. As it turned out, the healthy shot wasn’t so healthy and I was soon back on the phone…. ‘Oh, Goddddddddddd!!!!!!!!!’
This rather hindered our plan of having a traditional Czech Christmas because the family are all supposed to be together and there wasn’t room in the toilet for all of us. At about the last possible moment we could have had dinner without it being breakfast the next day, my guts relented and dinner was served. A delightful entree of carp soup with croutons, followed by fried catfish (on account of the relative lack of bones) and potato salad. Tradition demands that the family remain seated until the end of the meal but our viral guest wasn’t done with us yet. My Dad was its next target.
Due to the high level of illness among us and the fact that Our Kid had no idea what was going on anyway, we decided to abandon the Czech Christmas, give Ježíšek the evening off and go for a British Christmas the following day. So we all went to bed and in the morning Our Kid had a traditional sock full of soft, brightly-coloured, vaguely educational toys, Our Lass and I got the traditional socks, next year’s diary, smelly stuff etc, my parents got to help their one and only grandchild unwrap his first ever Christmas presents, my Dad got to be the first person to see him stand up without holding on to anything and my Mum got the viral stomach unpleasantness that the rest of us had finished with, so she didn’t feel left out.
So, that’s Christmas done with for another year. We’ve just got New Year’s Eve to deal with now… we’ve been invited up into the mountains with our neighbours but I reckon we’ll be at home watching rubbish on TV instead. Rock and roll!