Christmas is here again. Shiny, colorful, chintzy, and above all shockingly expensive. This year, impossible as it may have seemed, it arrived in Slovakia even earlier than last, at the end of September. It was heralded not by Advent, as it used to be in conservative and Catholic Slovakia, but by advertisers made frantic by the global panic.
Signs that we should start preparing for the annual holiday of peace and love nowadays come not from the jingle of bells, but from overflowing parking lots and hopeless traffic jams around shopping malls. Thousands of people elbow each other in overheated shops, swarming around shelves filled with goods fetching unchristian prices. Everywhere we are surrounded by garish orange signs declaring ‘sales’, in an attempt to convince us that the more we spend, the more we save.
For my baby daughter, this is perhaps the only kind of Christmas she will ever know – the kind that takes so long to arrive that when it finally gets here, we are out of energy as well as money. But for me, and even more for my mother and grandmother, the stress of the modern holiday season, with its inflated expectations and hysterical consumerism, reminds us all the more of the charm of Christmases past.
‘Tis the season
It was mid-afternoon on November 8, a Saturday. The weather was truly awful, windy and rainy. Home had exhausted all its charms, and the kids wanted to go out. But where to go on such a miserable day?
Over the past five years or so, an ugly pastime has caught on in Slovakia – shopping mall tourism. Rain or shine, entire families spend the weekend at huge, newfangled, impersonal mega-stores. Instead of picnics on the grass they order fast food from mall ‘outlets’; instead of walking through a forest they navigate sterile shops, here using a public washroom, there enjoying a public cigarette; and everywhere, instead of mountain breezes, they inhale great gusts of public air that has been breathed by a thousand lungs.
On this particular Saturday there was nothing for it but to join the crowd and pay our own homage to the shopping mall. If we didn’t start on the Christmas shopping now, it would only be worse later. So we got reluctantly into the car and set off for the nearest mall. We were stopped short of our destination, however – a monumental traffic jam clogged every artery leading to the mall, and despite the presence of traffic police, nothing was stirring, not even a mouse.
“What the hell is this?” my husband asked. "Christmas," I answered.
It took almost an hour to park, costing us the last shreds of Christmas cheer. In the mall itself, we had the feeling of being swamped by a human tide. People rushing, buying, paying, couples arguing, children crying, like a scene from a science fiction horror film, in which aliens have infected the earth with evil.
The bad-tempered crowd weaved between enormous Santa Claus figures and fake Christmas trees with glistening decorations. The atmosphere was paradoxically made complete by Christmas carols and the halting announcements of a store employee touting a sale that we ‘can’t miss’.
An older couple stood in a store with Christmas decorations. The woman repeatedly squeezed the nose of a Rudolf the Reindeer figure, which sang ‘Merry Christmas’ over and over again. She clearly had no idea that Rudolf is a reindeer, or that Rudolf is Rudolf, or even that he was voicing a holiday greeting. "What the hell is it?" her husband asked. "You can see for yourself, it’s a deer, and he’s singing about Mary and Joseph,” the woman replied with authority.
Santa Claus vs. Ježiško
The advent of Western Christmas traditions has presented other challenges for local customs. Singing Christmas figures reached the Slovak market at the end of the 1990s, but were not accompanied by explanations or any form of identification. To this day, most of us can’t identify them, and have no idea what role, if any, they play in someone else’s Christmas.
We were slightly better off with Santa Claus, who was the first to arrive on our shelves in all sizes. Santa we knew, sort of. But how to incorporate him into the Slovak Christmas without causing chaos? He looked exactly like our Mikuláš, but the latter has nothing to do with Christmas. Mikuláš visits Slovak households on December – on his ‘day’ on the saints’ calendar – and brings candy to good children and lumps of coal or potatoes to the bad ones.
Suddenly, Santa Claus was thrown into the mix, with his unlikely story of sliding down chimneys on Christmas Eve and leaving presents. In Slovakia, Christmas presents have always been brought by Ježiško (the Baby Jesus). So what do we tell the kids?
In our household, we maintain that Mikuláš comes on the sixth, while Santa Claus fills stockings with small gifts on Christmas Eve, and Ježiško leaves proper presents under the tree. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. Our nine-year-old son accepted it without hesitation, and since then we have been buying extra presents to stick in stockings, to support the Santa myth.
Mandarins and video games
One of the things that Slovak old-timers may appreciate about the modern Christmas is that the stores are full of exotic fruit. For generations, mandarin oranges have been the symbol of Christmas in this country, for which people have been willing to sacrifice long hours waiting in the cold. Now they buy them by the kilo.
I know what motivates them. Nostalgia, and the irrational fear that there won’t be enough. Many people are old enough to remember Christmases when they were no mandarins to be had. And a Christmas without mandarin oranges just isn’t Christmas, is it?
For my brother and I as well, mandarins always smelled of Christmas, and Christmas of mandarins. We were one of the more fortunate families who found them in our fruit bowl every year. Mandarins arrived only once every 12 months, appearing shortly before Christmas in our fruit and vegetable shops. Everyone would rush to the shops to make sure they didn’t wind up empty-handed.
In the center of Bratislava, in front of the Prior department store where a Tesco store is located today, there was a small fruit stand tended by a hugely fat woman. She always had mandarins, and hundreds of people would line up to get some, many from the early morning hours in the freezing cold. To be among the lucky ones, you had to get there early. To ensure that as many people as possible got mandarins, the woman would allow her customers to buy only two or three small bags of the fruit each.
Our parents didn’t have to stand in line for mandarins. My mum had an acquaintance, Anička, who worked in a fruit shop on Obchodná Street. She would take deliveries from the fruit truck, and immediately sort the mandarins into two lots – the best would be kept for her friends, and would be stored under the counter, while the rest would be for her regular customers. It often happened that she had more fruit under the counter than she had for general sale – naturally, because she had a lot of friends. So every Christmas we got our mandarins from Anička. My mum always called them ‘under-the-counter’ (podpultové) mandarins. My brother and I always believed they were more special than regular mandarins.
But mandarins were not the only podpultové goods we received at Christmas. There were also podpultové computer games from the Soviet Union, which we found under the Christmas tree one year. That was the best Christmas I can remember. These video games were about the size of a small calculator, and everyone wanted one. But not everyone got one. We got lucky thanks to an acquaintance of my dad’s, who worked at the Prior as an escalator repairman and was capable of getting his hands on anything. My brother got a football game, and I got a game with a wolf who caught eggs in a hat.
I-phones vs. board games
“You want some mandarins?” I asked my son. I suddenly had a strange feeling because we were the only customers not flocking around the mandarin orange display. “No, I don’t like mandarins, but I already know what I want for Christmas,” he answered. “Either an I-phone or the new Play Station or a snowboard.”
Great. Where does he get his modesty from, I wondered. “Do you know how much presents like that cost?” I asked. “I’m sure they don’t cost more than Sk10,000. That’s OK, right?” he shot back. I didn’t answer, because I didn’t know what to say.
After we got home from our shopping trip, I called my mum to tell him what Dominik wanted for Christmas. “He’s only nine, but he expects Christmas presents that cost Sk10,000. Do you think that’s OK?” I asked her. “How would I know?” she answered. “When I was a child I got the same present every year - Človeče nezlob se (a board game). And Christmas was always a joyful time. I can’t imagine what Dominik will ask for next year.” Neither can I.
The exchange gets me thinking about my mum’s Christmases. She really did get the same boring board game every year, and she really did get a bang out of it. As the daughter of a furnace maintenance man and a tram driver, she had no expectations of getting anything fancier. That game was enough to make it Christmas – that and a full table. She loved eating as a child, and you didn’t get a Christmas feast every day – two kinds of soup (cabbage and fish), carp and turkey, wafers with honey and garlic, apples – and of course mandarins.
My granny, who is now in her 80s, never found any presents under the Christmas tree, growing up as a station master’s daughter near Kremnice in Central Slovakia. But she still remembers Christmas as a magical time. “There were 10 of us kids. Mama cooked and baked for everyone, Papa gave a long speech before dinner that always touched us so much we felt like crying. We were all together and we were all happy. For us, Christmas really was a holiday of peace and joy,” she says whenever I ask her about it. In her world, there was no pre-Christmas stress, no shopping stampedes, no overstuffed stores trying to turn people’s heads three months before Christmas with advertising slogans.
“Babi, what was it that told you that Christmas was coming?” I asked her. “I guess the biggest sign was that people started to act nicer to each other, and the whole world seemed a bit more peaceful,” she said.
I can’t get that thought out of my head. Will the real Christmas ever return? Or are we fated to repeat our shopping misery every year?
Civil disobedience vs. following the crowd
For the first time, I thought about ignoring Christmas this year. Simply not buying anything, but instead trying to teach my kids that Christmas is about the family being together, not about loading up on gifts. About getting my husband to give a speech before dinner... and about giving everyone a wafer, an apple, and a nut for good luck.
I look at my son, and at my daughter learning to crawl on the carpet. Lily would probably have no issue with such a Christmas, but Dominik would be crushed. He would never forgive me for a Christmas that included no Play Station or snowboard, just as I would not have been able to handle the fact that Ježiško didn’t bring me a Soviet video game. And to be honest, I can no longer imagine Christmas myself without the rustle of wrapping paper. I already know that this year as well, I will be fighting my own way through the shopping mall crowds. To make sure I get everything I need to buy.