The eve of St. Nicholas' Day, known as Mikulas in Czech, has always been special in the Czech Republic. Adults and many teenagers traditionally dress up as St Nicholas, an angel, and a devil, visiting children to see if they have been well-behaved. In the past, the experience could be quite scary for youngsters - especially the youngest - afraid the devil, complete with horns, chains, and shaggy fur coat, would take them away. But, it may be changing - nowadays more children seem to be taking it as just a chance to dress up.
Ah, Mikulas - what an evening. The temperature well below zero, snow everywhere, and the figures of white angels, black-faced devils and the shining patriarch himself in the centre of the square... except... except this year on Prague's Old Town Square it's different. For one thing: there's extremely mild weather. Forget about snow and breathing in the cold evening air (there isn't any): there are people in thin jackets and even t-shirts: it's warm! Hardly any need to drink mulled wine - how about a cold beer instead?
Mother of two: "Every year it's pretty much the same except this year it's hot!"
Father: "The weather is good for walking but not really for winter sports!"
Worse, at six pm in the evening there aren't even that many St. Nicks around, though there are hundreds and hundreds of devils! Parents. Parents with strollers. And many, many children with devils' horns on their heads.
One mother I talk to says the kids aren't really that scared anymore and is there any wonder? Her own daughter is playing the devil and she's only seven! Still, her costume is exquisite - complete with chains and all the rest. And, like the hundreds of others kids on the packed square she's having a great time.
"I'm scaring the kids so that they behave! It didn't take long to make my costume, just today."
Here's what some of the parents had to say:
Man: "Well, this day is about angels and devils. It's a day for children of course. We play with them if they were good all year, and it's a quiet but exciting time. Everybody remembers this day from when they were small."
Father of two: "One of the symbols of this day are the devils' horns and somebody had a brilliant sales idea to make sure plenty were available, that plenty were here for people to buy. If you look around you almost every second person has a pair! My baby twins - well they have them too. But, yeah, it's true they're not scaring anyone. They're not devils!"
British couple: "We first noticed all the devil hats tonight when we first came out, before the Saint Nicks began showing up. All these children with devils' horns."
I'm sure parts of Prague are witnessing a more traditional Mikulas: one with children singing carols or reciting poems in their homes for visiting St Nicks, getting gifts like chocolate and tangerines ahead of Christmas before going to bed.
But, here on the Old Town Square the event has become something of a more commercial affair. That's not to say it's bad, just different. I only wonder whether some of the kids might kind of miss the point: if they don't feel at least a bit of thrill or at least some "fear" they've been "bad" - how will they appreciate St Nicholas's? It shouldn't be so easy to get off the hook!
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