Last weekend we were wondering where to dump our Christmas tree when through the window we spied a sizable heap of discarded conifers on the square. Ours soon joined the pile, which I later saw pictured on Facebook with the caption “the concentrated spirit of Christmas”.
I’ve heard it said that Prague’s abandoned Christmas trees are every year collected to be fed to the elephants at the city’s zoo. This is such a nice idea that I’m afraid to look into whether it’s actually true.
As in other countries, trees are usually taken down and decorations put away on January 6. It’s Tří králové or Three King’s Day, otherwise known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
On Three King’s Day I was ill and confined to bed so can’t say for certain that that was the day the municipal tree on the nearby Jiřího z Poděbrad square came down.
But when I was laid up I did come across a fascinating article on the subject of public Christmas trees in this part of the world.
According to one of the authors of a book on Czech Christmas traditions, who was interviewed by Respekt, the first municipal tree in the then Czechoslovakia was erected on Brno’s Náměstí Svobody in 1924.
The local writer Rudolf Těsnohlídek (whose poem, incidentally, was the basis for Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen) had happened on an almost frozen baby left in woodland. Shaken, and determined that no other infant be abandoned in such a way, he launched the charity Christmas Tree of the Republic.
Cash collection boxes were placed under the tree in Brno and – as the idea spread – at subsequent ones elsewhere in the still young state. Politicians, mayors, scouts, Sokols, legionnaires and others got involved in the drive, according to the piece in Respekt.
Some of the money went to a newly established children’s home in Brno, named Dagmar after the Danish monarch whose own Christmas tree campaign had inspired Těsnohlídek.
When Hitler invaded the Sudetenland the funds helped the thousands of Czechs displaced from the border regions, some of whom were staying at Sokol sports halls.
The Nazis banned the Christmas collections as an expression of patriotism. For their part the Communists insisted there were no children in need and brought the tradition to a halt in 1952. It was revived in 1968, but only the once before normalisation put the custom back on ice.
In 1992, three years after the Velvet Revolution, then first lady Olga Havlová ceremonially switched on the lights on a Christmas tree at Prague Castle linked to a charity appeal. A 65-year-old tradition had been revived.
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