Traditional giftgiver Jezisek

Local holiday tradition is tested by global forces

in Culture by

Czech kids stick with Ježíšek over Santa Claus on Christmas

He survived the Nazis and the communists, but he may be facing his toughest foe yet: Santa Claus.

The traditional Czech Christmas gift bearer, Ježíšek (Baby Jesus), has endured many a political and social change, but could globalization be his final undoing?

One group, Zachraňte Ježíška, launched a petition two years ago to save Ježíšek. A spokeswoman for the project, Eva Fruhwirtová, sees it as necessary to actively protect local Christmas traditions.

“We love Czech traditions. We want to keep Czech traditions. This means no Grandfather Frost, no Santa Claus,” she said.

The petition has since grown into a nationwide campaign, and the people most affected by this debate are, of course, the kids. A first-year class at ZŠ Benešov, Dukelská 1818, gave us their views.

When asked who brought gifts on Christmas, a dozen arms shot up. One after another, they answered without hesitation, “Ježíšek.”

“I saw him,” said one girl. “He was putting presents under a tree.”

“I have a plan to catch him,” added a boy.

But unlike Santa, Ježíšek has no definitive visual image.

“He has a red coat, with fur on it. And a hat. And he’s got a beard, a white beard, and a sack of presents, and a sleigh,” offered another boy, describing a Ježíšek who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus.

Dana Moravcová, director of Čtyřlístek, a nursery school in Prague 2, is adamant about the predominance of Ježíšek.

“[The children] identify who Santa is when they’re painting him. But if the children speak about our Christmas and what are they are looking forward to about it, the Christmas tradition is Ježíšek,” Morovcová said. “It hasn’t started that the children have a different [idea other] than Ježíšek.”

This even applies to children from non-Czech families, she said, most of whom have accepted the local custom. A survey of several other directors of kindergartens found the same thing.

Religous and secular

The tradition of Ježíšek has been observed in the Czech lands for about 400 years.

The Czech lands at this time were predominately Catholic. The idea of Ježíšek as a gift-bringer is attributed to Martin Luther, who apparently suggested it back in the 16th century as more befitting a Christian holiday than St. Nicholas. The symbol has prevailed even as the religious nature of the holiday has diminished in the Czech Republic, which, as it is often pointed out, has one of the lowest rates of religious affiliation in the world.

Pinpointing when Ježíšek transitioned from a religious to secular figure is not easy. A Christmas greeting to Edvard Beneš and his wife, Hana, when they were exiled in London during the Nazi occupation gives some indication.

A Mrs. Žižková wrote, “My most beautiful Ježíšek was when I got your address and so I can send written reminders often.” Here, the word Ježíšek is synonymous with the word “gift.”

The message was reproduced in Petr Koura and Pavlína Kourová’s insightful 2010 study of the holiday, České Vánoce: od vzniku republiky do sametové revoluce (Czech Christmas: From the Establishment of the First Republic to the Velvet Revolution). Rather than a catalog of traditions, the two writers place Christmas within the overall history of the region. In regard to Ježíšek, they show how the figure served as a source of resistance to attempts at suppressing local Christmas traditions, first by the Nazis, then the communists.

A letter in the book from an 8-year-old Miloš Forman asks for, apart from material gifts, Ježíšek to bring his father back home. Forman’s father was imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp, where he died in 1944.

During those dark years, it seems that Ježíšek was not just a gift-bearer but also a source of hope.

As early as 1951, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia tried to introduce Grandfather Frost, the traditional Russian bearer of gifts. As Koura and Kourová write: “Although Grandfather Frost persistently visited Czechoslovakia even to the beginning of the ’60s, he wasn’t naturalized here.”

In contemporary and commercialized society, the importance of Ježíšek, and the Czech approach to Christmas as a whole, is even acknowledged by people in marketing.

Michal Štadler, marketing director for Tesco-Czech Republic, said his company surveyed customers to find what would be most attractive.

They demanded traditional symbols – tree, carp, stars and sparklers – and were specific about colors: red, green and gold. But Ježíšek was conspicuously absent.

“After a long discussion to try to create an image, we agreed that Ježíšek is so powerful and great because he doesn’t exist,” Štadler said. “No one actually knows how he looks. The beauty is in the not being.”

Štadler conceded that if customers demanded to see Santa Claus, retailers would market themselves accordingly. However, he added he didn’t see this happening anytime “in the next 100 years.”

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