An Idiot’s Guide To Czech Christmas

Have you agreed to spend Christmas in the Czech Republic next year? Worried about what to wear, or whether it’s in fact a Christian country? Here are answers to frequently asked questions about how the holidays are celebrated by these strange and mysterious people…

When Is Czech Christmas?
December 24th.

And that doesn’t mean that they really celebrate it on the 25th and just open presents on Christmas Eve, like some weirdo families in the U.S. It really means that the 25th is just another ordinary day, the night of the 23rd has special ‘Xmas eve’ status, etc.

Do Czechs believe in Santa Claus?
No. At least, not as the bringer of gifts. In the Czech Republic, presents are delivered by ‘Baby Jesus’ (Ježišek).

Santa is reserved for a lesser holiday called Mikulaš, when adults (read: drunk friends of one’s father) dress up as either Santa or the devil and caper about for the benefit of children.

So how does Baby Jesus make and deliver presents? Does he have a North Pole workshop and team of reindeer?
No. It remains unexplained how exactly the presents get into the house— somehow, they just materialize.

Does Baby Jesus even have a agreed-upon physical form that can be leveraged for Christmas marketing?
Visualizations of Ježišek have begun to pop up in order to combat the increasing infiltration of Santa into Czech culture (this is actually a phenomenon that Czechs perceive and mildly resent). Yet the cartoon representations that I find on the internet are so kitschy, I can’t bring myself to post them.

Is traffic bad during Czech Christmas?
Only if Vaclav freaking Havel decides to die right before the big day and clot up the entire city for his public funeral. Nice timing, hippie.

What about food? What do Czechs like to eat on Christmas?
Carp. Which is weird, given that the fish are generally marginalized in the country’s culinary habits during the rest of the year. This leads to the second-coolest phenomenon associated with the Czech holidays: carpmongers! In the weeks leading up to Christmas, there are guys standing on street corners with bathtubs filled with squirming carp.

What’s the first-coolest phenomenon associated with the Czech holidays?
Readily-available hot wine purchased from street vendors.

Do Czechs hate Christmas?
No, not at all!

What activities can I expect to encounter on Czech Christmas?
Basically, tons of eating and brain-deadening dosages of pohádky (searingly cheesy TV fairytales about princesses and horses and goblins and whatnot).

I’m in the Czech Republic and have friends coming to visit from abroad over the holidays. Are there any ready-made practical jokes I can play on them?
Wait until your friends have bought their tickets and then inform them that the entirety of December is spent celebrating something called ‘The Feast of St. Wenceslas’, during which there is no alcohol sold or consumed whatsoever. Then, pretend to ‘lighten their spirits’ by claiming that, despite this prohibition, the city is tons of fun during this month thanks to all the inspired Christmas pageantry.

Culinary Update

Last night, I had my first-ever sip of Diesel. Diesel is the widely-reviled popular German drink that involves an equal mixture of beer and coke. Actually, it tasted just like root beer and didn’t offend at all. This taste experience posed two unsettling questions: (1) What exactly is root beer, anyway? and (2) What if it’s not as distinctive as we imagine it to be?

The Restaurant That Used To Be A School and The Inventor Who Never Existed

This weekend, the wife and I went back to the farm where we got married. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all reflections on two years of marriage to a beautiful woman on you. The reason I bring it up is just to tell you about the village restaurant we stopped at during our farmland tramping:

First, if you peer first into the distance, and then into the shadows of this photo, you can see a happy co-mingling of beers and children’s toys. This is fairly typical of Czech restaurants in general, but the connection is especially striking here because the restaurant is located in an old one-room country school house. Here’s the cheery exterior:

Inside, most of the educational props are still intact…

… including the good old Periodic Table of Elements:

(For once, the Czech language isn’t made conspicuous by its clusters of consonants and scarcity of vowels.)

I ordered the traditional classic Svíčková, which Krafty once memorably described as a ‘meat Sundae’ in his one visit so far to the Bohemian lands:

After tucking in my meat sundae, I blearily staggered back inside to peer at an inscription I’d noticed on the wall inside (vaguely discernible in one of the above photos):

The text is just a nostalgic verse about when author was a schoolboy. But what’s notable is the attribution, Jára Cimrman. Cimrman (pronounced ‘Zimmerman’, like Bob) was a fictitious inventor and educator who’s become a kind of de facto Czech national hero despite never having had existed. A Zelig who’s credited with suggesting the Panama Canal to the Americans and inventing yoghurt, among other accomplishments, Cimrman is even the subject of a museum exhibition located in the basement of the tiny replica Eiffel Tower that stands at the top of Petřin Park in Prague.

This is one of the photos at the exhibit. The caption explains that Cimrman was training police academy recruits in a new technique he’d developed for approaching an armed assailant. The idea is that the criminal supposes that the figures approaching him are actually reflections cast in a body of water, so he subsequently fires over their heads. The exhibition is filled with ridiculous stuff like this– it’s fun to take visiting friends there and see how far they make it before catching on that the whole thing is 100% made up.

So long, old friend

For my money, Berlin is the best place around. A friend of mine who lives there was once describing the feeling of relief that comes over him every time he returns to Berlin after a trip– that “Ahhhh, I’m home” sensation. I thought about this for a second and said, “Actually, I feel that way and I don’t even live there.” There’s just something about the place that feels so comfortable– for a city that was once the worldwide headquarters of Evil, it sure has gotten awful hospitable in recent years. Plus, there’s tons of cool cultural stuff going on. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about much of it because I almost never wake up before 2pm when I’m there… but it’s heartening to know that its there anyway.

Two things I did manage to do while I was there: get a burrito at the Mission-themed Tacqueria Dolores, and buy a new wallet. Here’s the spent husk of the old wallet…

… and here it is sitting next to a mostly-eaten Tacqueria Dolores burrito, having just been officially decommissioned (I did the switcheroo to new wallet while eating the burrito):

There’s nothing that you put so little time into selecting but then wind up spending so much time with as a wallet. This sad, battered one had been with me since 2004 (?) and has gradually deteriorated into the leather equivalent of a wet paper bag, loosely enwrapping its contents. When a 1000 crown note nearly fluttered out of it a few weeks ago at the beer garden, I decided it was time for a change.

Having tired of a the default black leather look, I selected a more jaunty one this time around, black with red stitching and a zippered change purse area (this is a big deal for me, as having too much change slushing in my pockets is a constant condition in my life and one that I feels undermines my general credibility). Granted, it’s a bit womanly. In fact, I think it is a woman’s wallet. But I feel good about it so far, and think that this new era of my life is off to a promising start.

Now, if only I hadn’t left my house keys in Berlin…

Czech Mex

A rejected directional sketch I did for our client who’s selling burritos in Prague:


For such an indispensable and delicious foodstuff, the burrito sure is a difficult thing to make look good. It often winds up looking like an amorphous blob when illustrated and downright repulsive when photographed. There’s a real need in this project, moreover, to show it in a way that’s both appetizing and readily identifiable, as lots of central Europeans are somewhat fuzzy on the whole concept. We discovered that my fellow designer here at the studio, a Ukranian fellow, had no idea whatsoever what they’re about.

I kinda like this pseudo-woodcut look, but we collectively resolved to go in a more diagrammatic ‘Tech Mex’ direction, which is fine with me. I would happily sign the rights to this over to anyone who would overnight FedEx me a Mission burrito in exchange. All this burrito-related design work is making me really hungry.

Some thoughts about bacon

Here are bacon-related things I’d like to see more of:

1. Ads for bacon that depict a illustrated pig (optionally wearing a chef’s hat) happily cutting off a part of his thigh and either eating it himself or enticing you to. I have a friend in San Francisco who has an honest-to-god phobia of these ads and can barely even bring herself to discuss them.

2. Sides of bacon that you can order for your side of bacon, growing progressively smaller like russian dolls.

3. Bacon suits, as worn by fine upstanding young men like these:

handsome lads

4. Round-the-clock bacon. In the U.S., it’s primarily a breakfast/brunch offering. In Czech, it comes at dinner time, frequently wrapped around other things (like plums… mmmm). Vive la difference, I say. It should be available during all meals in a wide variety of different artful culinary contexts.

5. Diners and brunch places equipped with bacon dispensers. These could look and function something like a toilet paper dispenser, but with a large spool of bacon inside perforated at regular intervals so you could simply tear off as many pieces as you like.

My friend Brice refers to bacon as ‘man chocolate’, the implication being that it’s a sort of comfort food for him (and other men, I guess). I like the idea of him curled up in front of a Nora Ephron movie, eating bacon and having a good cry.