Christmas Around the World

“Kings will bow down to him, and all nations will serve him.” Psalm 72:11

I love Christmas time. People ask me what I love so much about it and I can’t quite put words to it. I love going to cut a Christmas tree. I love listening to Christmas music. I love the cheesiness of Christmas movies. I love the foods (especially the sweets.) If I had to pick a favorite thing to love, it would probably be the lights.

Living abroad, I’ve found that Christmas varies widely around the world. The traditions I grew up with are quite different from those that are celebrated here in Prague. Here are a few notably different Czech Christmas traditions.

* St. Mikulas (the Czech word for St. Nicholas) visits Prague on December 5th (the eve before St. Nicholas’ birthday.) St. Nicholas is a catholic saint who was historically attributed to children and gift giving. On December 5th, actors portray St. Mikulas in various city centers around town. He is accompanied by an angel and a devil. If the children have been good, St. Mikulas gives them small sweets as a reward. If they have been naughty, the Devil puts them in a sack and “drags them to hell.” The children are literally put screaming into sacks and lifted off the ground until they promise to be good. At that point, they are given their gifts. Here’s a video detailing some of this odd tradition:

* December 24th is the highlight of the Christmas celebration in Prague. Gifts are exchanged amongst families on this day, before sitting down to the traditional Christmas dinner. The typical entrée is carp. Czech families purchase a live carp in the week leading up to Christmas and keep it in their bathtub. On December 24th, the carp is killed and fried for dinner.

* On Christmas eve, Baby Jezisek (pronounced: Jez-eh-check) brings gifts to children across the Czech Republic. The legend of Jezisek is that his parents were traveling when his mother went into labor. They couldn’t find a place to stay, so Jezisek was born in a barn. Angels and kings and servants traveled far and wide to bring gifts to baby Jezisek. If the story sounds familiar…it isn’t! Czechs insist that this is not the story of Jesus. In fact, it was Martin Luther that first popularized the idea of Jezicek to compete with the gift giving mythology of Catholic St. Nicholas. Now, after dinner on December 24th, Baby Jezisek brings presents to children in Prague.

* In some families, in addition to bringing presents, Jezisek also sets up the Christmas tree as a present for the family (although the idea of a Christmas tree is from Western Europe and still rather new to the Czech Republic in a post-communist era.)

What I’ve learned from being immersed in these traditions and away from my own is that all traditions seem a bit silly from the outside. After all, in the U.S. what do pine trees, songs about snow, cheesy love stories, sweet foods, and colorful lights have to do with the birth of Jesus anyway? They are no more related than devils, carp, or magic babies.

But the importance of tradition isn’t in the tradition itself; it’s in the significance it holds to the people. For me, decorating a tree is a practice in preparation in the same way we prepare for the birth of Christ during advent. Christmas music stirs images of warmth, family, magic, and joy. Christmas movies take us into simpler times where love wins and happy endings are possible (and isn’t that a message Jesus has for us anyway.) In a world that can often be so bitter, sweet treats give us a reason to pause and smile.

And the lights remind us that Jesus is the light of the world, bringing peace, joy, and, above all, hope, each year at Christmas time.

We need traditions in our lives. They remind us who we are. And it’s fitting, that at the end of each year, no matter how remarkable or awful the year has been, the whole world celebrates Christmas in its own ways, using various traditions to remind us all who we are…children of peace, joy, and hope!

Merry Christmas!

Zach Herzog

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