This past December, I had one motivation: get out of Turkey and get to somewhere that celebrated my kind of Christmas.
Of course, Turkey has a Christmas, of sorts. Noel bayram is celebrated as a New Year’s festival. Mall Santas, lights, and decorations show up everywhere. Many families decorate trees and exchange gifts on January 1, which is referred to as “Christmas,” but it’s all completely secular. In fact, our boss at work didn’t know that Christmas is a religious holiday until we pointed it out to her.
Normally I wouldn’t really care either way–I’ve never been particularly fond of Christmas. But this was my first time away from home during the holidays, and the awareness that all the friends and family I cared about in the States were celebrating together made me feel especially far away and, yes, even homesick. Plus I was weatherworn, sick to death of administrative struggles at work, and just plain exhausted. The seeming inaccuracy and sacrilege of of mixing up Christmas and New Year’s Day… it was the last straw. I had to get away.
Prague was the obvious choice not just because it’s culturally Catholic (my brand of Christianity, for whatever reasons) but also because, when I was younger, my father traveled through Central Europe for work and always brought back stories about how utterly beautiful this city is. And he was right. It was perfectly charming and just the right amount of Christmas therapy. I came upon a wondrous and confusing Christmas exhibition/craft fair in the basement of Bethlehem Church, feasted my eyes on nativity scenes and Christmas trees galore, explored Christmas stalls and markets in all the major plazas, saw lots of paintings of Jesus in the museums, and on a rainy night in the New Town stumbled upon a group of carolers singing and playing music under the Charles Bridge.
There were non-yuletide-themed activities as well: art museums, drinking copious amounts of tea and reading books in cafes when my body got too frozen, shopping, and a nifty Hall of Mirrors on Petrin Hill. I finally found a pair of hiking boots I love, and in the Shakespeare & Son’s Bookstore, I came upon a copy of Carnet de Voyage, the only Craig Thompson novel I hadn’t read (plus I was traveling solo, so reading his travel comic about traveling alone was perfect). I drank hot wine for the first time, ate street food including a foot-long crepe, listened to holiday concerts in Old Town Square, people-watched, and generally felt great surrounded by so much beauty and history. I studied European history and knew about the Defenestration of Prague, the burning of Jan Huss, the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia–but I had never been in the place where all three things had happened. (It’s rather surprising to realize how many historically significant acts of violence–defenestrations, burnings, beheadings, hangings, bombings, etc.–have happened just in the Old Town Square alone.)
At one point, I was walking around the outside of St. Vitus Cathedral, gazing at the intricacies of its facade along with hundreds of other tourists, when I heard singing. A procession dressed like the holy family–Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and a pair of angels–appeared from around a corner. They processed, singing, to the steps of the church, followed by a flock of camera-snapped tourists, and struck up an entire nativity play on the threshold of the Cathedral. I didn’t understand the Czech words, but I didn’t have to–I knew the story by heart from years of masses, Catholic schooling. In fact, I thought of all the times I had heard the story of Jesus’s birth, from my hometown in the Midwest to here in Prague, I began to cry. Even though I was here, so many degrees of separation away from where I started my journey in this weird confusing life, this story and this day (Christmas) was always there. I’m not religious, but I was struck by the power of my memories, and the power humanity has to create meaning and connect connect ourselves intensely to ourselves and each other through that meaning.
Basically, everything felt spontaneous and magical. I had an extra bit of luck: the entire IST-PRG flight was spent chatting (more like engaging in vigorous political/philosophical debate) with my Turkish seatmate, who upon landing introduced me to his girlfriend, a current Erasmus student in Prague. She eventually invited me to her friends’ Christmas Eve dinner party, organized by a friendly and vivacious group of Peruvian students and expats. Besides my Turkish friends and the Peruvian hosts, there were guests from Macedonia, Romania, Singapore, and me from America. Eating turkey and speaking Spanish among others who were far away from “home” somehow made me feel right at home. And as an English teacher, the meeting made me shiver with pride at some points: there is a lot wrong with the global spread of English but international, cross-cultural gatherings like this would never happen (or at least, be a lot less likely) without a shared language. Also, it made me realize–don’t balk from talking to folks on airplanes! You never know who you’ll meet and where it where lead.
In conclusion: Prague, folks! Go there! Belated happy holiday and check below for a photo essay.