Sunday, 5 December 2010

St Nicholas comes to Cesky Krumlov

 It's the Eve of St Nicholas: traditionally the night when this proto-Santa comes to town - not just to Cesky Krumlov but to every town, indeed into every household with children. I wrote two long blogs with many photos about this occassion last year, so this time I shall be brief - still, I couldn't help popping to the Town Square to witness this joyful, old-fashioned party, enjoyed by all the locals.
Despite the freezing cold (-8C) the families all crunched here through the snow with their well-wrapped children because, well, because it just wouldn't do to miss St Nicholas' arrival.
 And so each year the Town square comes alive with music and market stalls selling hot grog, mulled wine, mead, beer and of course sausages, and the hundreds of assembled children's faces range from eager anticipation to dread - because St Nicholas comes not alone, but accompanied by an angel and a devil. The Czech idea of devils is one of patronage: a devil is seen as something inferior to humans, basically a stupid, laughable being who has been stripped of all power by the Czechs' irreverent attitude to it. Nevertheless, as an aid to parenting, the devil has its use: as in 'wait till St Nicholas comes, the devil will show you'.... but as the children grow, they begin to love the silly devils and they dress up as them as eagerly as their parents do. When you walk about the square, you will find many more devils than angels - the angel being the preferred costume for beer-bellied dads, mostly.
The underlying reason for St Nicholas' retinue is sound: the devil and the angel represent the two sides of human nature to which St Nicholas acts as a mediator, a balance. He understands that we all have our darker side and so in dishing out his presents, he usually gives a piece of coal as well. No-one's perfect.

St Nicholas visits not only large gatherings such as this one - the real St Nicholas Eve happens in the home: dad, uncle or a total stranger (there are many groups of St Nicholases, devils and angels roaming the streets on this night, whom you can hire for a shot of slivowitz) dress as the saint, sundry relatives as the retinue, and the ritual visit involves much ringing of small bells, rattling of chains, and the child or children having to admit to all their good and bad deeds, then to sing a song or recite a poem, upon which they get their reward. There are no big presents - the commerce hasn't yet caught up here. It's the ritual that counts.

And when the children have gone to bed, the grown-up party begins. Why waste a good disguise? So the sundry Nicholases, devils and angels of all descriptions get out into the night streets and aim for the warm pubs. This is the bit I love the best - the bizarre spectacle of the Nicholases loosening their beards as well as their dignity, the devils taking liberties with the opposite sex (all allowed with a tolerant smile), the angels knocking back big jars of beer with earthly abandon. And of course there's music.

And so I am off now, outside again, to join the party - good night.


Karin said...

I loved your post on this subject. My husband and I were in Prague last winter and enjoyed the evening's event there, but I think we would have enjoyed Cesky Krumlov's more. What a joyful occasion for everyone. And we did get to Cesky Krumov in February, loved it, snow and all! Thanks for the memories.....

Thud said...

Cheers and Merry Christmas to all here.