I never thought I’d say “I’m going to Prague for Christmas” but that’s what happened this year. Just a seven hour train ride from Keleti Pályaudvar to Hlavni Nadrazi and we arrived in the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic. This was the second time that I have been outside of Canada for December 25th. I am lucky as I most often spend Christmas in Cape Breton with my family or, in recent years, in cozy Manitoba with the Robinsons. Being abroad at a time when most people’s hearts are at home is strange, challenging but full of new opportunities.
Prague has been at the top of my ‘To Visit’ list for years. I’ve heard magical descriptions of the city’s impressive and well-kept architecture hugging the Vltava River, it’s inexpensive and delightful food and drink and rich cultural scene. Prague was as promised. In December, the city was vibrant with Christmas markets and the bustle of happy faces with mulled wine and chimney cakes. We explored and celebrated and discovered Christmas abroad. Here are some reflections on what made this expat holiday a happy one.
Christmas Meals the Local Way
In most of Central Europe, Christmas Eve is the most important day of the Christmas holidays. Following this tradition, Derek and I decided our big holiday meal would take place on the 24th. After too little research and a reservation at an into-the-thousands-down-the-review-list restaurant, we completed a flurried search and ended up at a nice pub in historic Vinohrady. Vinohradský Parlament‘s Christmas menu offered snail soup and if the locals eat snails at Christmas, you don’t say no. A hearty vegetable soup with small mussel-like bits that Derek decided were not of his liking. I happily finished the starter. For the main, carp was on the menu and was also an obvious yes. I had heard all about the Central European Christmas carp markets and stories of carps biding their time in bathtubs before their holiday appearance. Out came the fillet beautifully roasted and sitting on a bed of white beans, black lentils and red onions with a baked pepper sauce. I can see why carp is a holiday treat in Central Europe. The dish was rich and savoury and went very well with my half-litre of Staropramen Unfiltered. We rounded the meal out with house-made rhubarb ice cream (what?!) with pear mousse. Though the meal didn’t have Mum’s stuffing or Dad’s bad puns, it was a Christmas meal to remember.
Prague is filled with dozens of beautiful churches and cathedrals. I know I overuse the term “awesome” as we North Americans are wont to do, but these churches truly are. Old Town Square alone boasts two impressive places of worship and its Church of Mother of God before Týn has steeples reaching 80 metres high. On Christmas Eve, it was a particularly special experience to attend midnight mass at theAugustinian St. Thomas Church. The church was, yes, awesome. It’s tucked away slightly given the more modern street grid, but upon entering, the 18th century ceiling frescos, the golden alters and the intricate wood work encasing majestic art pieces have their effect. Excuse the quality of the photo as well as my taking it, I could not resist capturing this moment. The mass was in Czech, English and Spanish, a neat combination of languages reflecting world religion and languages. The church itself is daunting but the feeling was festive with welcoming words and hymns that carried across languages.
Traditions Extend Over Continents
Ever since my sisters and I have grown up, Bailey’s in our morning coffee, sitting with the folks, usually on the floor by the tree is the taste of Christmas. It is a relaxed morning of pyjamas, conversation, vinyl DJ’ing by Dad (never holiday music), and simply spending time together. While the coffee’s on, there’s no need to get dressed or get moving. It’s a calm in the Mira morning that I cherish.
In Prague, I wanted to keep that taste and sought out my miniature of Bailey’s and enjoyed it with the hotel room coffee on the 25th. Though the cup wasn’t in Cape Breton, there was a joy in savouring coffee & Bailey’s and a morning relaxation. I relished that morning comfort and reflected on what makes a MacDonald Christmas special. Eight hours later and well after my caffeination period, I was able to join the morning chats via Skype.
Virtual Visits Bring You Home
Thank you to the folks in Tallinn for this beautiful creation for modern communication. Skype is the best. I cannot imagine traveling before its existence. I suppose the handwritten letter and the expensive long-distance phone call did lend themselves to more dedicated conversation and prompt follow-up. But seeing someone’s face as you catch up makes a world of difference. Really. The world feels closer when I can see the reaction to a gift opening, or when Mum can show me how much snow fell outside the front door. Chatting with my family face-to-face feels more like a visit than a phone call.
It’s What You Make It
After all, Christmas is just another day. It can be as reverent, as simple, as woeful, as adventurous, as delicious, as indulgent or as festive as you make it. Any city with a Christian history will provide a pleasant backdrop for your celebrations, but the rest of it is up to you. Derek and I spent the 25th strolling Prague castle, discovering Kafka and dancing architecture. With Bailey’s, Skype calls and time together, it was a wonderful Christmas Day.
Here’s a smattering of scenes from Prague. Click on the photo for more background. Of all the striking historical and architectural scenes, a surprising highlight was the Kafka Museum’s moving statue Piss peeing into a pond in the form of the Czech Republic. It was a reminder that Prague is a city of many layers, quirks and lessons, just waiting to be explored.