Saturday, 6 December 2008

Czech St Nicholas - more on Angels and Devils

Following on from my post below:
If you are a Czech child, and indeed a Czech adult too, this is one of the highlights of the year - for some, an event far more eagerly anticipated than Christmas. Although materialism tries hard to seduce the Czechs with a Christmas present buying mania, St Nicholas' has miraculously remained a fest of fun and imagination where getting presents is not at all the point: the point here is a meeting between mundane life and magic, a letting go in a carnival atmosphere (last night at 3am an inebriated St Nicholas was seen right on top of the big Christmas tree in the square, shouting: 'taxi!', watched by amused town police), but also a serious moment of reflection.
The family rituals go something like this: a half-eager, half-terrified child is thinking of nothing else all day, and when evening falls, there's a bell and in comes the figure of the Saint with his retinue of angel(s) and devil(s). 'Have you been a good girl (boy)????', asks the Saint, while the devil rattles his chains threateningly with all sorts of grunts and much impatience. The angel meanwhile looks on the child beningly. This opposition of course represents us all, with St Nicholas being the figure of understanding and forgiveness that balances the opposites. He keeps the devil in check, and when the child has admitted to some small trespasses and told proudly of his achievements, when he has sung a song or recited a poem the three leave a small present - perhaps a bar of chocolate and a tangerine, but always also a piece of coal from the devil - and leave, promising to come back next year.

The Czechs (like I said in previous posts) are supposed to be the least religious nation in Europe. But perhaps they are the most truly willing to enter into the imaginary realms of fairy-tales and feel totally at home there. Perhaps because they have experienced the angels and devils 'in the flesh' as children, the adults watch with equal pleasure as their offspring the fest of fairytale films that fill the TV schedules up till Christmas. And the most beloved ones tend to feature lots of devils - as untamed, unwashed, rather stupid characters of pure instinct that we can feel superior to (the hero always outwits them of course), but whom we love to watch because they are funny, and because they - after all - are the part of us that likes to be naughty and uncivilised.

I've often wondered why here people look on their devils in this way, while in Britain and elsewhere the very word is laden with pure loathing. Is it that perhaps in the past centuries the Catholicism prevalent here has furnished the images of heaven and hell wherever you go and encouraged the imagination to go there, while the protestant ethic has pushed such imagination into more of an abstract opposition of 'good and evil' ? Or is it simply that the Czechs are a childish nation that refuses to grow up? I am neither a catholic nor a protestant, so I don't know. But I love the freedom with which everyone here enters into the spirit of it - and long may it resist the plastic Barbies and Coca-Cola coloured Santas in the new globalised palaces of commerce that are popping up everywhere: there will never be a 'regime' change in this country while its devils and angels roam the streets.

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