A father's homeland... From Prague, dreaming of the beach at Christmas...
It is only a month until Christmas and as I sit here in Prague writing, it is gloomy and grey and cold outside and I have to use the electric light in order to see, even though it is only 9 o'clock in the morning. I find myself thinking about summer in New Zealand and going to the beach over the Christmas / summer holiday...
Christmas and the beach, sun, sand, freedom!
My favourite childhood Christmases were at my New Zealand grandmother's because she lived near the beach, around the bays from Wellington. In fact, it was one street back from the beach and you could see the green and white inter-island ferries come into the harbour from the sunporch window, and you could hear the sound of the sea at night. There were always a lot of family and relatives who would come and visit, especially on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas. I would have to pass around a lot of cups of tea and Christmas cake and shortbread, but I didn't mind it because I loved being at the beach so much. On the days after Christmas, we would go round to Days Bay where there were row boats you could hire; that's where my mother taught my brothers and me to row. The beach was calmer and sandier there than by my grandmother's so we could swim out to the raft in the middle of the bay or jump off from the wharf. Afterwards, we'd get a big ice cream cone each -- my favourite flavour was hokey-pokey (vanilla ice cream with small bits of "hokey-pokey", a hard sweet, a bit like butterscotch) and then we'd catch the bus back or walk back along the beach to my grandmother's place, past the huge pohutukawa trees with their bright red flowers, also called Christmas tree because they flower at Christmas time. You can see them all around the coast of the North Island of New Zealand.
However, we all knew a "real Christmas" meant winter and snow and tobogganing because most of the Christmas cards that you received or sent had such pictures on them -- children making snowmen, Father Christmas arriving in a sleigh in the snow etc. And all the Christmas stories seemed to be about the same sorts of things. But for us, it signalled the beginning of the school holidays, the beach, sun, sand and freedom!
Adults often refer to the Xmas season as the "silly season" because of all the Xmas parties, the rush to finish things up at work before Xmas, preparing to go on holiday, the frenzy of last-minute Xmas shopping and the general end of year "madness". Sadly, January is also a time when the admissions in psychiatric hospitals go up, perhaps part of the consequence of this end of year "madness" and the pressures of family gatherings.
Put another prawn on the barbie (BBQ)!
During most of the 1990s I lived in Sydney, Australia and the Christmas period was similar there as to New Zealand. There were a lot of Christmas parties in the month before Christmas -- people have them in their homes or backyards or they have barbecues (a barbie in Australia) at the beach and most work places organise more formal Xmas parties. A party usually meant anything from 30 people upwards, 15 -- 20 people was a "small party" and under 15 was just having a few friends over. Parties or barbies organised by friends are, more often than not, B.Y.O. (Bring Your Own) which means bring your own bottle of wine or beer, often called long necks (a large bottle of beer), stubbies (a small bottle of beer) and tinnies (a tin of beer). Sometimes you might also be asked to "Bring A Plate", which means bring some food -- it was always a confusing term for migrants to Australia. In the hotter parts of Australia, such as northern New South Wales, people will often arrive at a party with an esky (called a chillie bin in NZ, a cooler in the US) full of beer and leave it in the esky to keep it cool for the duration of the party. Otherwise, the hosts of the party will have buckets of ice, or the bath tub filled with ice, so that you can deposit your bottles of wine or beer there. Most people drink white wine in the summer -- the most popular in Australia is Chardonnay. Or people will head for the beach with their esky and have a picnic or a barbie there. Men usually take charge of the BBQ, even these days! At some of the Sydney beaches, there are electric BBQs, you put in twenty-cent coins and you can cook on the grill. For example, Bronte Beach is very popular because not only is there a great BBQ area, but there is also a fantastic beach and a lawn where you can play ball games such as soccer, volleyball or with frisbees. In fact, a group of Czechs and Slovaks have been playing volleyball at Bronte Beach for over 20 years, just about every Sunday afternoon.
Christmas Day "down under"
On Christmas Day itself, some people attend a church service in the morning while others start the day with a "champagne" breakfast consisting of croissants and coffee, freshly-squeezed orange juice and an array of tropical fruits and berries -- mangoes, pineapple, passionfruit, kiwifruit and strawberries and cream plus, of course, a bottle of Yellowglen or other Australian-style "Champagne." Then a late lunch inside or at a table under a tree in the backyard; it could be roast turkey or ham or seafood plus lots of salads. As seafood has become increasingly popular, the fish market in Sydney is open all night just before Xmas, from 6am on December 23rd until 6pm on Xmas Eve, December 24th. The favourites were king prawns, Sydney rock oysters and calamari, or fish such as deep sea salmon, ocean trout or an Australian fish called barramundi. English tourists sometimes take a Xmas tree to Bondi Beach, probably Australia's most popular beach and sit on the sand having a Xmas Day picnic, but I have never heard of Australians doing that. They are usually at home inside or out in the backyard; people would often go for a swim later in the day when it's cooler.
Which day is really Christmas Day?
Apart from the difference in the weather, the biggest difference is that people here in the Czech Republic celebrate Christmas on December 24th while in English-speaking countries it's celebrated on December 25th. This is why I never had a real Czech Christmas until 1999. However, I was supposed to have Christmas here once in 1987, but unfortunately, I missed it. I was studying in England at the time and my plan was to go to Poland and visit some friends there for a few days, and then to spend Christmas and New Year with my Czech relatives. I had planned to travel to Czechoslovakia on December 24th, completely forgetting that Christmas really happens here and in Poland that day. I found that all the trains stopped around midday, and that I just couldn't make it in time, I would be stuck somewhere. My friends persuaded me to stay and have Xmas with them, so I had a Polish Christmas instead.
A Czech Christmas at last!
When I lived here for the first time in 1999, I felt quite excited as Christmas approached and the special markets appeared in the various squares of Prague along with Christmas decorations. Then as the day drew nearer, I would see people crowding around strange-looking barrels in the street. These were full of live carp brought straight from the countryside and people would choose the one they liked best. We never eat carp in either New Zealand or Australia, maybe because it is an introduced fish, and in NZ anyway, it is regarded as a pest because they grow so much and take over the rivers and lakes and make it difficult for the native fish to survive. However, I did eat it in Moravia with my Czech relatives and enjoyed it. Afterwards, we visited friends and then went to midnight mass, standing room only -- it seemed that a lot of people had come straight from the hospoda, judging by the smell of alcohol! After enjoying the enthusiastic singing, we almost ran home in the cold, on the way, glancing at the town clock where there is also a temperature gauge; it showed minus 7 degrees Celsius. So we hurried home to have a hot cup of tea and domaci slivovice (for medicinal purposes of course) The next evening it snowed, maybe about 30cms (or 12 inches) and it was quite magical as we went outside walking in the snow. I finally I felt like I'd had a "real Xmas"!
Pangs of homesickness...
People here often tell me they cannot imagine having Xmas in the summer and they sometimes even laugh at the thought of it. I am sure it must have been a strange experience for my father and the other Czech refugees, having their first Xmas in New Zealand or Australia. Not only the completely different weather conditions, but the myriad of little customs and traditions associated with Christmas that were missing. No doubt, it would have exacerbated feelings of homesickness and loneliness. In the end, it is not really about all the presents or what kind of Xmas tree or the weather but about being with family and close friends. I know that I'll have pangs of homesickness at Christmas but at least my New Zealand family are only a long-distance phone call away and that I'll be able to visit them next Xmas, something which was not an option for my father and his friends, nor for today's refugees.
Zeeland instead of New Zealand
This year I am looking forward to a Dutch Christmas in Zeeland, the Netherlands with my husband's family. Zeeland (which means something like land of the sea) is the part of the Netherlands where Abel Tasman, the first European to discover one of the islands of Aotearoa (Land of the Long White Cloud) in the South Pacific in 1642, came from. He renamed it New Zealand after his homeland. However, in amongst the merriment in Zeeland, I will be thinking of New Zealand and my NZ cousin's family, who will be without her for the first time this Xmas and for a friend in Sydney who lost her partner to cancer close to Christmas last year, and how difficult it is for all those who have recently lost a family member or close friend. Unfortunately, Christmas is another poignant reminder of that loss, particularly the first year that someone is no longer there.
On a less sombre note, I will also think about my nieces and nephews in NZ and how much I'll miss them bounding up and down the stairs, feeling the presents below the Xmas tree, begging to open "just one!", and later, roasting marshmallows on the fire after coming back from midnight mass while the adults open a bottle of Lindauer (the NZ equivalent of "champagne" or Bohemia Sekt) And then singing along to songs from "The Sound of Music" played on a very old LP record, partly in memory of my mother whose favourite songs they were.... Are these things typical of a NZ Xmas? Not necessarily, just families getting together and having a good time...and the next day going to the beach... Veselé Vánoce a Šťastný Nový Rok!Anežka Novak
(Anežka Novak is a krajanka from New Zealand. She is currently living in Prague).
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