Advent is a time when most Christmas exhibitions open throughout the Czech Republic to make people stop in the pre-Christmas hustle and bustle and think about the spiritual values of the season. One such exhibition opened earlier this month at the Ceska sporitelna bank premises in the centre of Prague.
When I arrived in the basement of the building, I could feel the Christmas atmosphere everywhere. With carols resounding, decorated trees, dozens of nativity scenes made of all kinds of materials and lights of many types created a perfect image of a typical Czech Christmas. And that's also the main message of the exhibition, as its organizer, Blahoslav Lukavec confirmed:
"This is already the 23rd exhibition of this kind. We started organizing it back in the year 1980, at a time when Czechoslovakia still was in a firm totalitarian grip, and we did it with one aim: as a kind of protest against the Russian 'Father Frost'. Although I did not believe we could continue after the Velvet Revolution, we do - and today we protest against Western Santa Claus. We have our 'Baby Jesus' who hands out Christmas presents and we have beautiful Czech customs, so the main aim of the exhibition is to make people realize that the typical Czech Christmas has its own spell."
Mr. Lukavec explained to me that each year the exhibition has one theme to concentrate on. Last year it was bells and this year, it's light. That's also why it is called 'The Bethlehem Light':
"We want to show visitors old ways of lighting. The fact that today we come home, turn the button and the light is on is a reality only several decades old, but before it was quite complicated to light up the room. To 'tame' fire and not to put it out at the same time was not easy, and we want to demonstrate it on various kinds of pine torches and hanging fire-places. We also present lanterns and lamps that gave light with candles, or used to be filled with oil or petroleum."
Many of them were made specially for this exhibition, and will became part of future ones. As far as the nativity scenes and other Christmas items are concerned, they are sent in by enthusiasts who make them at home. Mr. Lukavec told me that he cooperates with more than 500 nativity scene makers throughout the country who send in their 'products' regularly. Then some 150 are chosen, whose works are exhibited. This year, visitors can admire works by 170 nativity scene makers.
Part of the exhibition is also a "carvers' symposium", which lasted for the whole of last week. Carvers from the Czech Republic and Slovakia came to Prague to carve figures and objects related to Christmas or the theme of light right in front of the eyes of visitors, because another objective of the 'Bethlehem Light' is to inspire people to make at least part of the Christmas decorations in their homes by themselves.
"When I was travelling around the country seeking some laymen carvers, I found out that all of them were wonderful people. What might be interesting is the fact that most of them live in the border areas of the Czech Republic, which before and during WWII used to be the Sudetenland, where most of the population were ethnic Germans. Well, I said to myself, we should have all those people in Prague. So I invited them, and they liked the venture so much that they showed an interest to come again. So this year we already have the third carvers' symposium."
And I spoke with one of the carvers. What struck me most was her young age: Jana Rejmanova from the town of Vysoke Myto in east Bohemia is only 18. She told me more about her beginnings as a carver:
"My father started to carve in the year 1990. He was a locksmith by profession but he liked carving so much that he started to become professionally devoted to this hobby. He used to carve in our living room, and back then I was a first grader. We drew a lot, and gradually we exchanged pencils for chisels...Well, and that's how it all began."
Jana told me that she carved all sorts of things, but what she liked most were human and animal figures. The bulk of her work stays at home, she told me, but she always makes a little creature or an animal when she needs a gift for her friends' birthdays or any other occasion. I asked Jana which of her works can be seen at this year's exhibition in Prague?
"We have here a nativity scene which we've built together with my dad. By the way, I have two sisters, and the eldest one started carving professionally as well. With my dad, we started to make this nativity scene three years ago. I did the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus, and my dad carved St. Joseph. Since then we have been adding several figures to it each year, so it is becoming larger and larger. We usually carve from lime wood, and this year, to match the name of the exhibition, I made a little girl holding a lantern and looking at the saint family."
The exhibition, where you can also buy Christmas tree decorations and small gifts for your relatives and friends, is open daily until January 6th.
And let's have a look how Christmas will be celebrated outside Prague. For instance in Kladno, the largest town in the Central Bohemian region, they will have a huge nativity scene on the central square and a festival of ceramic-making will be held. But the biggest treat - as its organizers say - will be a Christmas dinner of two big bears that are kept in Kladno. The dinner will be prepared by Kladno's Mayor, Mr. Milan Volf, himself. Also, there are three big decorated trees in various parts of Kladno to help create the Christmas atmosphere. In addition, there is a huge Christmas market on the main square, which will last until Christmas Eve - the most important day of the season here in the Czech Republic, when the typical Christmas dinner takes place and presents are handed out.
The bear dinner might be similar to that eaten in most Czech families: while last year they had baked beef in cream sauce with dumplings, this time it will be either fish or boiled beef, but it might as well be a typical Czech meal that came from Hungary and that they adore - goulash.
It's mostly schools that are involved in the ceramics-making festival - 20 of them have sent in more than 300 handicraft products with a Christmas theme. Since December 15th, they have been displayed in the main Kladno church, and the exhibition will last until January 5th.
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