A European Christmas
Amy Nickerson | December 2016
’Tis that joyous, festive season once again.
If I were celebrating with my family back in the States this year, and I’m guessing for many of you reading this, December brings with it cheesy made-for-tv movies, peppermint mochas, and stockings hung by the fire. However, as I spend my first Christmas as a full-time JV staff member in the Czech Republic, I can’t help but notice things are a bit different here. According to my national friends, the common movies to watch these snowy days are Czech fairytales, but I can’t understand them yet. For many, the holiday drink of choice is svařák, a mulled wine Czechs often drink on cold days. And stockings are not a part of most Christmas decor, but the European streets do look magical with their classy twinkle lights and holiday signs.
Although there are certain pieces of home I definitely miss, here are a few of the common European Christmas traditions I’m enjoying taking part in as a missionary on this side of the ocean.
Ask any of our JV staff members what they look forward to in the winter here and probably one of the first things they’ll say is walking around the Christmas markets. Whether in a cozy village like mine or a big city like Prague, you normally only have to go as far as your nearest square to visit stalls set up to sell roasted nuts, hot drinks, and local hand-crafted products perfect for gifts. There is often a big Christmas tree decorated as well and plenty of live music and lights.
Kyle Evans, director of the JV communications team and who is also new to the country, says his family is even making it an official tradition to explore a new market each year. “This Friday, we're going to hop on a train and head west to the city of Olomouc, Czech Republic for a fun day-trip to see all the Christmas festivities. We can't wait!”
Photo by: Martin Popelar
Another fun thing many JV staff members are involved in over the holidays is Christmas concerts. A lot of the local Fusion choirs, from JV’s evangelistic music and performing arts ministry, have events where the youth sing carols and showcase what they’ve been up to throughout the fall. I went to the one my church held this season which was packed full of people and cheer.
Plenty of other concerts, open to the public, and not directly connected to our JV ministry also take place. For example, a couple weekends ago in Ostrava, for the fourth year, a group of over a hundred members formed the choir and band for Ostrava Zpívá (Sings) Gospel. All 1,650 tickets to their shows were sold and many other people watched the live streaming of the concerts on Facebook.
Terry English, JV Fusion director and choir conductor at the event, says, “Before Christmas there are many Advent concerts, but most of them are commercial events where there is no chance the audience will hear the gospel message, or church events that an unbeliever would be unlikely to attend. We wanted to create an event that would be visible in our city where Czechs would be challenged with the gospel message.”
Zuzana Nelson, another JV staff member who has sung in the choir since its beginning, describes the experience, “There’s something magical about this project --people come from different places socially, culturally, spiritually and together create something amazing.”
I agree that it was pretty amazing to watch when I was there a couple Saturdays ago. As the group sang and celebrated with so much energy for two hours straight, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the message of hope and joy that they sang about. Pray with us that the truths many heard at these events, some for the first time, would resonate with them this Christmas and bring the real reason for the season into focus.
One other thing I’ve really appreciated about how Czechs celebrate Christmas is that they keep Santa Claus separate from Jesus’ birth. Instead of Santa bringing presents to children on Christmas eve, Mikuláš (St. Nicholas) along with an angel and devil, meant to help discern whether a kid has been good or bad, come on December 5th and give small gifts to well-behaved little ones. You can see people dressed up as them at malls and schools and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can even watch them ride around town in a horse-drawn carriage like I did at the beginning of this month.
After that though, the Christmas season is more about spending time with family, eating delicious food (That is, if you think the carp swimming around in your bathtub the week before Christmas will satisfy your tastebuds on the special day. My mouth is still waiting to make a final verdict.), and the birth of Jesus. On Christmas Eve, the story is that baby Jesus is the one who brings the gifts, not that old jolly guy with his reindeer.
I find it interesting that in what is now one of the most atheistic countries in the world, this tradition would have stuck around through the years. Many people may not realize that the greatest Christmas present ever wasn’t just brought by Jesus, but was Christ Himself. It is my prayer that in this part of the world, as people write letters to Jesus in the markets, and sing praises to Him at concerts, and open presents on the 24th, that they would know His love for them that was long ago packaged in swaddling clothes, resting in a manger.
This year for Christmas, I’m experiencing plenty of newness here in Europe. I’m thankful though for the different traditions that are reminding me once again of why I like this time of year in the first place. God put on flesh and made His dwelling among us; may we all be filled with great joy at this good news.
Wishing you a very, merry Christmas and a happy New Year from over here. As you celebrate, please pray with us that this winter season would bring with it many opportunities to share Christ and the reason we celebrate Christmas with people who don’t yet know.