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Christmases of the past

Christmas Eve traditions

By Emma Palova

EW Emma’s Journal

Christmas Eve in Czech Republic is a colorful tapestry woven with legends, stories, myths and superstitions that originate in folk beliefs long before television or the Internet.

Many people believe that magical things happen on that day. No one should be sad, aggressive or squabble on that day, because it would stay with them until next Christmas.

Coming from a Catholic family, we always fasted on that day. The tradition has it if you don’t eat anything until the festive dinner, you will see the “Golden Pig.”

“Emma, don’t eat anything or you won’t see the golden pig,” my grandfather chuckled behind my back.

Christmas Eve traditions KJ Erben's poem
Christmas Eve traditions KJ Erben’s poem

Then one Christmas Eve, as a kid, I caught him doing the pig with a flashlight. I remember the disappointment was almost the same, as when my friends in Sudan, Africa told me that Jesus is not the one who brings presents, but my parents do. I used to write letters to Jesus, and put them inside on the window sill. I was always so happy when they disappeared. Santa Claus does not exist in Czech traditions.

Some disappointments come early.

We always had real wax candles on the tree. One Christmas in Africa the tree caught on fire. I guess my dad extinguished it. The same happened in former Czechoslovakia at least three Christmases. Then, we finally switched to electric lights which are nearly not as romantic, but a lot safer.

People also visited on Christmas Eve to wish merry Christmas to taste desserts and do some shots. Usually people had their favorite cookie. One year all the chocolate beehives disappeared. A relative ate them all. The same thing happened last night, when my brother Vas ate all the vanilla crescents.

Letters to Santa at the Lowell Post Office
Letters to Santa at the Lowell Post Office

The beehives were a catchall dessert. They’re not baked because they’re made from already baked dough that just didn’t turn out well. You add rum to the dough, and put it in the form and it comes out like beehive or a tall hat. Then it’s filled.

There should be an even number of diners at the table or Mrs. Death will take the odd one within the next year. You can also fool Mrs. Death by setting at least one more plate if there is an odd number of people at the table. No one should leave the table during dinner or they will die.

Apples also come into play on that magical evening. You cut an apple in half and if it has the perfect star-shaped pit in the center, you will be healthy. If it’s rotted, the person will be sick.

A healthy apple brings a healthy year
A healthy apple brings a healthy year

You should place a scale from your festive carp and a coin under the plate for wealth. Those who are really motivated can put an entire wallet under it.

Also you’re supposed to throw behind you a shoe. If the front of the shoe faces the door, you will leave the household or get married. My mom always did this one wishing her shoe would turn out so she could leave former Czechoslovakia  be reunited with my dad in Hawkins, TX. She waited four Christmases before she  received her emigration visa.

Other tales call for sharing the leftovers from the Christmas Eve dinner with the nature, animals and birds. We open presents after dinner and go to the midnight mass.

One tradition that disappeared are the carolers and musicians playing under the balcony in hometown Zlin. But, once a year, I play the piano and my son plays the saxophone Czech carols.

Mom’s birthday

Mom’s birthday marks end of summer

My memoir “Greenwich Meridian” is dedicated to my mother Ella Konecny of Big Rapids, Michigan. Out of the entire immigration saga now spanning three generations, she was the one who suffered the most.

“Immigration is a lot of give and take,” she said in an interview in Venice, Florida in March.

Today as she celebrates her birthday, I recall the summer birthdays of the past in former Czechoslovakia.

Mom Ella Konecny, the pharmacist
Mom Ella Konecny, the pharmacist

After returning from Texas on presidential amnesty in 1973, we spent most of our summers at grandparents’ old house in Vizovice, region of Moravia in former Czechoslovakia. The old dwelling was called a “chalupa,” which has nothing to do with the Mexican food.

“I wanted to go home to help my parents,” mom said in a recent interview in Venice, Florida.

Mom was working at the pharmacy in then regional capital Gottwaldov, while we were living the country life on the streets of Vizovice. At first I wasn’t too happy about leaving behind the American lifestyle.

Back in Hawkins, we had a car, dad’s university apartment, and a coke machine at the Junior High School. I was not only on the honor roll, but also on the basketball and softball teams. I played the flute at the time, later the clarinet. I had dreams bigger than this world.

Coming home to Czechoslovakia was a shock. I couldn’t name the months of the year in Czech, I didn’t know Russian or geometry. So, mom entered me in seventh grade instead of eighth at the local 1st through 9th grade school in Stipa.

The school in comparison to USA was very strict and a lot more difficult. I thought the teachers were mean. My aunt and classroom teacher Martha had to tutor me.

But, I loved the summer breaks at the “chalupa” in Vizovice. By the time August rolled around, I was tanned and hardened by the streets. We spent all our time on street Krnovska in Vizovice playing whatever and with who ever was available.

Moravian dwelling called "chalupa."
Moravian dwelling called “chalupa.”

I started a street club with friend Zdena who was the treasurer. I remember exploring along the banks of the river Lutoninka. The river had a weir, and for many years we swam in its cold waters. My grandpa Joseph poached on the river catching fish with his bare hands.

Every year when August 23rd approached, grandma Anna gave me a 20-crown bill, usually late in the afternoon.

“Go and buy a gift for your mother,” she said. “It’s her birthday.”

I grabbed the money and proudly marched into town passed the tobacco/jewelry shop close to the grade school. I’ve always loved window shopping. In awe, I admired the crystal glasses and other famous Czech crystal and garnets.

Sometimes, I would just walk into the shop and buy a newspaper and linger around so I could smell the tobacco. Therein are the origins of my love for newspapers.

When I finally made it across the bridge to the general store called “U Kaluzu” ( “By the puddle,” ) I was fascinated by all the merchandise.

The store pitched atop the river bank had everything.

Many decades later, I was surprised to find a small organizer sewing basket at my parents’ condo in Venice.

“Mom you still have this?” I asked. “I got this for you ages ago in Vizovice.”

“I know,” she said. “And I kept it.”

Happy birthday, mom.

Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova