Medieval Christmas still lives in Prague

In my book Prague for Beginners, Elizabeth, an American who teaches English, has a decidedly medieval experience in 1994 Prague:

"The closed door is apparently a signal that we are all in place. Suddenly it is flung open and in walk Svatý Mikuláš, Čert, and Anděl. We clasp our hands like children at the sight: a very tall, broad, white-bearded Svatý Mikuláš, a small and sneaky-looking Čert with a broom as tall as he is, and a beautiful blonde Czech-model type Anděl. This trio is professional; we hired them to be the centerpiece of tonight’s Svatý Mikuláš Day party at the Nebraska students’ dormitory in Prague 6.

Svatý Mikuláš
They are an impressive group as they enter, firmly in character and fully-costumed. Svatý Mikuláš has a big cloth bag, bulging with odd shapes. He is benevolent but authoritative, a bit like Dr. Černý but in an exaggerated way. Čert is a shifty-eyed little man, nervously scanning the room, brandishing his broom and black bag overflowing with real coal. Anděl has the far-away, unconcerned look of any Czech blonde beauty; she has gotten by on her looks alone all her life, so why get involved in any of this nonsense?

For a moment, no one moves. It’s a bit awkward. The group is not here to entertain us but to meet us and double-check tonight’s arrangements, so they aren’t sure if they should put on their entire act, with gifts, coal, and smacks on the bottom. In fact, if they go for smacks on the bottom, I am the only person who will get one—who could smack a PhD? I secretly would love to see their routine and wouldn’t mind a smack, but I don’t know how the doctors feel.

Then Čert takes the initiative, as the devil often does. He sidles over to us, leering at Dr. Pešková. In Czech he mumbles in her ear, something shocking by the look on her face. He then pulls out a lump of coal, but Dr. Komárek bravely intervenes, standing to recite (I think) a list of the good things she has done this year. Dr. Černý is making eye contact with Svatý Mikuláš, who walks over to him and asks him if he’s been good this year. Surprising myself, I jump up and begin reciting, in very poor, halting Czech, Dr. Černý’s good deeds, making much of his work with the Nebraska students in an attempt to provide some backstory for tonight’s party.

With all of us babbling and Čert slinking around (and Anděl standing like a statue—why is she even here?), it’s a lively moment for the venerable Filozofická fakulta building. I am having a blast, trying to convince Mikuláš to open his bag of goodies while protecting Dr. Černý from the relentless Čert. Dr. Pešková and Dr. Komárek are laughing like little kids, having bested Čert for the moment. I am getting irritated with Anděl; I booked this group and don’t see that I’m getting value for money from her.

I catch her eye, and she gives me a gentle smile, then glides over and puts her arm around Dr. Černý’s shoulders. She is silent, but she seems to be supporting me in persuading Mikuláš that Dr. Černý has been good. Finally Mikuláš gives Dr. Černý a small, gold-wrapped box. Dr. Pešková and Dr. Komárek also get a gift.

Then there is another awkward moment. Everyone is staring at me, and Čert comes over to switch his long, forked tail over my feet. He’s claiming me! Someone help me! Dr. Pešková stands with a glint in her eye and launches into a list of all my good deeds on behalf of the Nebraska program. She’s speaking in Czech, but her diction is clear enough that I can follow most of it.

I feel absurdly grateful to her for being my champion. Čert is still right next to me, but Mikuláš seems to be listening to Dr. Pešková. And here comes Anděl, who stands on my other side. I am the filling of a devil/angel sandwich, with a human attorney who’s arguing in my defense to the judge, Svaté Mikuláš (a dead saint). Maybe it’s not exactly the way the Bible puts forth the Christmas story, but it does capture the essential elements: good, evil, a judge, and an advocate. In this scenario, Dr. Pešková is doing the job of Jesus.

Mikuláš has made his ruling: I get a gift. Čert looks disappointed, Anděl looks aloof, and Mikuláš looks jolly. We gift-recipients are beaming. The trio makes its exit, with me following to double-check the time with Čert, the one who speaks English; I communicated with him to book their act. Yes, they’ll meet me at the dormitory at 7 PM.

When I go back into the office, the three doctors are opening their gifts. They all got Mozartkugel chocolate balls, an expensive Austrian candy that you see in Prague tourist stores. Mine is the same, I find. We pop our Mozartkugel into our mouths and chew. They are tasty little bites, for sure."


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