In recent years the Czech media has grown increasingly obsessed with one issue this time of year, which is whether traditional Czech Christmas figures - like Mikulas, the Czech version of Saint Nicholas, have taken a beating from western imports like Santa Claus and Rudolph-the-red-nose reindeer. To a certain extent the fears are justified. For time immemorial Czech children have looked with anticipation towards the eve of December the 6th - St Nicholas' Day - but recent years have seen mutations drawing the holiday closer to a masquerade ball or Halloween.
Traditionally, on Saint Nicholas' Day, Saint Nicholas - Mikulas in Czech - visits families to see if children have been good or bad. He is accompanied by the other-worldly figures of the angel and the devil, which, for the smallest children can be truly awe inspiring. Mikulas and his compatriots are no less than magical figures, to be respected and even a little bit feared. Ill behaved little boys and girls have often been warned the devil would take them away if they continued to misbehave. Imagine seeing the devil for the first time: horns, curly hair, a red tongue and piercing eyes, and most importantly an arm-outstretched ready to grab you by the collar... A flaxen-haired angel smiling in your direction, and kindly old Mikulas handing you tangerines or chocolate in the end and not coal or potatoes after all, as your Mum coos in your ears and wipes the tears away from your eyes. Traumatic? Certainly. It is a collective trauma shared by all Czech children but they all survive in the end. That's how it's always been. Or, at least, that's how it was.
Recent years have seen lots of children masquerading as all three archetypal characters Mikulas, the angel and the devil, running across the Old Town Square, laughing and fighting among themselves. Mikulas bonks the angel with his white staff; the devil pulls Mikulas by his beard, and the angel drags the devil by his chains. We're watching a trio of five-year-olds. But this is all wrong. Where is the element of surprise, fear, sudden understanding? A five year-old can't be a holy patriarch - this isn't Halloween or a birthday party! In this scenario where is the lesson learned? What is the point?
Given, many psychologists would probably say it's better for children this way, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out - they're laughing not crying right?
But in the earlier scenario, the unpleasantness lasted only a little while, making the sudden rewards shine so much more. Didn´t that stand for something too?
Finally, if this is the way it's going to be from now on, I want someone to tell me what will become of my devil's suit... The black-face and the horns, the pointy tail that looks like a pipe-cleaner, the chains and the cloven hoof. The bag of coal and potatoes. Will the cry of the devil be heard no more?
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