His ancestors were among the most influential nobility in Bohemia, but unlike many others, they chose to remain in Czechoslovakia after the communist takeover. Now Děpolt Czernin is doing his best to protect a famous Czech tradition – “Ježíšek”. He has founded a society devoted to bringing the likeness of baby Jesus back into the public sphere.
Although polls show that baby Jesus is still understood as the gift bringer in most Czech families a survey taken a few years ago showed that 29 percent of the population see the traditional gift bringer as an abstract entity and 38 percent as an old man.
What is more, shop windows are now decorated with chocolate Santa’s and TV ads regularly portray the bearded figure driving his red truck.
To combat these trends, Děpolt Czernin, a descendent of one of the oldest Czech noble families, started a movement called the “Society for a traditional Christmas”, which is trying to bring the image of the figure back into the public eye.
He recently visited Radio Prague to explain the struggle that baby Jesus is facing today.
“I believe that baby Jesus is present in the public sphere. However, he is hidden after years of attempts to replace him. First he was replaced by President Zápotocký in the 1950s when he said that baby Jesus has grown up and became Father Frost, coming to us not under the star of Bethlehem but the many red stars shining from our factories, mines and schools. Everyone in the Czech Republic knows that speech.
“Nowadays I often come across people saying that during the last regime there still was a traditional Christmas. However, it depends what we think of as a tradition. A tradition is not the withdrawal of our customs from the public sphere. Once we cease to sing Christmas carrols at his cradle in the town square that is the first moment when baby Jesus is pushed out and starts hiding merely in our hearts. We expect someone whom we would rather not know what he looks like and we would like to hide the nativity scene in the attic.
“While it is true that much has changed with the coming of freedom, public pressure has not. This time it is not thanks to a totalitarian regime, but thanks to global marketing and its mascot – Santa Clause. I have no intent of fighting this. Polls still suggest that in the Czech Republic less than 0.5 percent of people expect Santa Clause. However, I think it is a great shame that we do not know who baby Jesus is and what he looks like. That he is a child from Bethlehem who enters our hearts and homes, transforming all of the presents that we give each other into those ‘real’ presents from baby Jesus.
“That is where our project comes in. We want to bring baby Jesus’s likeness back. We live in a country with a great Christmas tradition. A wealth of art revolving around nativity scenes, which are unique compared to the rest of the world. With a huge amount of Christmas carols that revolve around praising baby Jesus. We should therefore know what he looks like and be able to imagine his likeness when he is no longer just lying in the crib but walking. After all, we have the most famous example of the Christ child on earth, the Infant Jesus of Prague.”
In their attempts to reintroduce the image of baby Jesus back into the public eye while keeping with his spiritual meaning as a bringer of love and charity, Mr. Czernin and his society has come up with an inventive way to do so. They have brought the Czech tradition of writing letters bearing gift wishes to Ježíšek out into the streets.
“You arrive at a venue where there is some sort of Christmas event going on, in Brno specifically it is the Christmas market on Zelený Trh square. Located there is a spot called “Baby Jesus’ Divine Office”. It contains a paper roll about 300m long and members of the public can write their wishes on it.
“For me it was an amazing surprise when I found out that the final letter was 615m long. Yet what was even more positive was to read what people had written on the roll. Those were some lovely wishes. I was a bit afraid that the most common wish from adults would be a pack of money, but that was not so. The most popular wish was health and happiness to the wider family, the second most common address was a wish to find eternal love and the third was to be blessed with a child. Like I said, I was quite taken aback by the positive things people had wished for.
“Of course there were many other lovely children’s wishes too. The most common children’s wish was for Lego, perhaps because is very short and easy to write. Sleds were also popular, as were game consoles. But I wasn’t very focused on those. I was leaving them to baby Jesus.
“So this letter idea certainly filled our expectations. Everyone who had contributed saw what baby Jesus looks like, because his image was printed on the paper roll. And we want to expand that into as many as ten cities this year.”
It is not just on paper rolls that Mr. Czernin and his society have sought to bring the face of baby Jesus, in an attempt to get him more permanently into the kitchens and sitting rooms of their countrymen, special baby Jesus mugs can be bought at Christmas markets as well.
“Originally, I myself thought that the quickest way to get baby Jesus back in the public sphere was through his picture on bottles and cups. But then I visited some Christmas markets and realised that it was a bad idea. He would just end up lying around overfilled bins, flying through the air and stepped on by pedestrians. Some may even spit and shout that he is causing a mess and that is certainly not a dignified way to portray him. So I thought, if we use this method, it can only be on a mug. Perhaps even a plastic cup, but only on one that is hard and recyclable.
“These are the two approaches we are using now. We have our cups made out of Czech porcelain in Dubí, supporting local production and able to say that our baby Jesus was produced here in Bohemia.“
On the website of the Society for a traditional Christmas, visitors also come across a sort of guide on how to keep their celebrations as authentic as possible. A special list called “The ten commandments for a traditional advent and Christmas celebration with baby Jesus” lists, among other things, the need to celebrate the Christmas figure in a “Betlém”, the Czech word for nativity scene.
“Czech nativity scenes are unique because they do not just portray one family accompanied by nearby shepherds and the three kings. They also show the whole village, guild and musician band. It should be said that Czech society was inspired by the Christmas rumour that the greatest gift was on its way and everyone is near Bethlehem to rejoice and praise Jesus. “
Recently, the honour was bestowed upon a film, Anděl Páně 2 (Lord’s Angel 2), which is one of the many fairy tale movies that Czechs like to watch during Christmas and so does Děpolt Czernin.
“My Christmases, since I decided to help baby Jesus out a bit, have become rather busy. I am certainly away for most of the advent period and only get back home on Christmas day along with my older children, who have started taking part in our project as well. Of course we watch some fairy tales. I always leave that to the youngest children. There is one problem though – we do not have a television. So we improvise with what we can find at home on CD or in any other way. Anděl Páně 2 is certainly one of the fairy tales we occasionally watch and I believe it was right to give it our order.”
But apart from promoting the traditional figure of Czech Christmas and occasionally watching fairy tales, how does the man whose society had the boldness to issue their own ten commandments for a traditional Christmas celebrate in his own family circle?
“There are a few customs that my wife brought into the family, which we are very fond of. Before starting Christmas dinner we now have an appetizer which is composed of a slice of garlic with honey. When I was a child, we would come to the Christmas tree with my parents and pray. These things we still do in my family.
“After that, we would then each go to our own pile of presents. Nowadays, since the birth of my fifth child, which is a bit younger than the others, we have started a custom that the two youngest children go to the tree and hand out presents individually, so we rejoice with each present that is opened. The occasion then goes on for the whole night.”
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