Madlenka Korbelova

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Eighteen years ago, Madeleine Albright became the first female Secretary of State. She changed women’s roles in American politics and influenced some of the world’s greatest leaders. Being Ambassador to the United Nations and winning the Presidential Medal of Honor are just pieces of her story. For most of Albright’s childhood she was in danger. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she learned the truth of her early years and family.

Her role in American politics and accomplishments make me admire her, but her experience and desire to find truth in her past make her stand out. Though I am far removed from my Czech ancestry and have grown up in a modern age, I feel that the desire to know about who you are and where you come from is important. This knowledge can change you.

Here’s a brief biography of Madeleine Albright:

Marie Jana Korbel was born in Prague in 1937 during the first decade of Czechoslovak independence. Her father worked with the new government under Presidents Tomas Garrigue Masaryk and Edvard Benes. Marie or “Madlenka” spent much of her early childhood in exile between England and Yugoslavia. In 1948 during the rise of communism, her family left for America, seeking political asylum. She spent her teenage years in Denver where her father taught at the university.

Albright studied foreign relations and Central European politics while at school and has had an incredible career as an American politician. Vaclav Havel even encouraged her to run for the Czech presidency and be his successor. She declined because she she hadn’t lived in the Czech Republic for over 50 years. After her time in office, Albright learned that her childhood was not what she thought or remembered. Her family had not only been political refugees because of her father’s work, but they narrowly escaped the concentration camps. The news of her Jewish ancestry drove her to find the truth of her past.

I encourage you to read her book: Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948. It has given me a fresh look at the history and experiences of the Czech people during their struggle for freedom. There are a lot of questions about WWII and Czechoslovakia’s role in it. I can’t help but feel the country’s helplessness. There are so many different outcomes that could have been if another decision had been made or another person was made leader. The Czech people have persevered though centuries of having their rights taken away, but in a modern world it is easy to take those rights for granted. We don’t expect that such brutality and disregard for people’s rights still exist.

What are your thoughts about Czechoslovakia’s role in WWII? Do you think Benes had any choice? Was he bullied into making hard decisions or was his lack of action the downfall of Prague? If Masaryk had still been alive would the outcome be different? What about Chamberlain vs. Churchill in England? Could a war have been prevented, or would Hitler have still found a way to conquer much of Central and Western Europe? Could concentration camps and mass genocide have been prevented? I don’t know that there is a right or wrong answer because we cannot change history, but it is hard not to ask what if?

Epiphany or Three Kings Day

Svátek Tří Kràlů

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Today is the 12th day of Christmas. It is also the feast day celebrating the visit of the magi to Jesus and of Saint John baptizing Jesus. Kaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior are the three magi that brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh to the infant messiah. They represent the past, present, and future, with the oldest king with the dark skin, representing the shadow of death. On this day, chalk is blessed by a priest and used to write K+M+B (the names of the Kings) above the doorways. The letters can also represent Christus Mansionem Benedicat, meaning Christ Bless this House. The chalk is not removed but written on top of each year. The day has evolved into a day for the trio to collect money for local charities. Last year marked a record amount given. You can read more about it here: http://praguepost.com/142-culture/43500-czechs-donate-record-sum-to-three-wise-men

Today also marked the 20th year of the Kings processing through Prague. Read more about that here:
http://www.praguepost.com/142-culture/43653-three-kings-march-through-prague

Finally, the three kings is also a name for three men in the Czech resistance during the Nazi occupation of the Czech Republic. For more information Czech out this link:
http://www.private-prague-guide.com/article/the-three-kings-heroes-of-the-czechoslovak-resistance-movement/

Czech Christmas Traditions

Přejeme Vám Veselé Vánoce
We wish you a merry Christmas

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I realize that this post is about a week late but the information is too good to not share. The following link http://www.praguepost.com/142-culture/43577-czechs-tend-to-trust-occult-arts really started to make me think about not only the idea of religion in the Czech Republic, but also where many of the traditions come from and why.

Many of the customs related to Czech holidays, especially those at Christmas time, are rooted in superstitions that may lead to a better life if followed, or misfortune if not. Czech have a very interesting history of beliefs that begin in paganism and the worship of nature prior to the 9th century. During the 9th century, Catholic missionaries Cyril and Methodius came to the Czech lands bringing Christianity. The most important part is that the brothers presented Christianity to the people in their own tongue, not in Latin, as was custom in the rest of Christendom. It caught on quickly, but the corruption of the church became an issue in the 15th century when Jan Huss and his followers protested against the authority of the church. Most of the Czech people formed a military power to protect their lands and rights which included fighting off five crusades and helping fight for their neighbors.

Since that point their has been relative freedom of religion in the Czech Republic (allowing for many Jews to find refuge in Prague during the 1930’s and 1940’s). However, during Reich rule and communism, religion as a whole was discouraged. The communist regime over took churches for their wealth and space and pushed many Czechs away from religion. In the last 25 years of freedom, the Czech people have remained tolerant, but mostly uninterested religion.

You can read more about Czechs and religion here:
http://czechgenealogy.nase-koreny.cz/2015/01/czechs-and-religion.html?m=1

Today, most holidays and traditions are a mixture of pagan and Christian beliefs. I would first like to look at some superstitions and then go into a little more detail about Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic. Some common themes in Czech sayings or superstitions are luck, lifespan, the future, and for a good marriage. Here is a short list of those relating to Christmas:

  • If you throw a shoe over your shoulder on Christmas Day, and the toe points toward the door, you will be married soon.
  • A tiny boat is made from a walnut shell. If it floats in a bowl of water with a candle in it, then you will have a long, healthy life. If it sinks, then it is a bad omen.
  • If you cut an apple in half crosswise and the core makes a star, it will bring you good luck.
  • Pouring melted lead into water will tell you your future. For example, if the lead had a bubbly surface, you will come into money.
  • If a young lady places a cherry twig in water on December 4th, St. Barbara’s day, and it blooms by Christmas Eve, she will get married in the following year.

*The following things must be done on Christmas Eve in order to ensure good luck and to not allow misfortune.

Many Czechs will fast during the day of Christmas Eve and eat only after the 1st star is seen in the sky, signifying the Star seen by the wisemen. The table is set for an even number of people so not to bring any bad luck, and no one may sit with their backs to the door. (I was also told this is done so that if a stranger comes to your home on Christmas Eve, you are ready to welcome them to dinner. The table legs may also be tied down to protect the house from being robbed.

Dinner is comprised of soup, bread with honey, fried carp, potato salad, fruit, and desert. No alcohol is allowed. The carp is bought the week of Christmas and kept in the bath tub for the children to keep as a pet. The scales of the carp are later saved to ward off evil spirits. Also, If you put a scale in your wallet, it will being you more money in the new year.

No one may leave the table once dinner has started until everyone is finished, which means no food is left on your plate. The leftovers are given to the animals and the tree, so no one is left hungry on Christmas Eve. The tree is then decorated in a separate room which is closed off until morning, when bells are rung to alert the children that baby Jesus has brought presents. (Sometimes presents are opened on Christmas Eve as well).

Christmas deserts and sweets are a very important part of the season and women will begin cooking months ahead of time. Some popular deserts are vanočka (a sweet dough with dried fruit), lintzer cookies (two butter cookies filled with jam), vanilcove rohlíky (crescent shaped walnut dough rolled in vanilla sugar), vosí hnízda (beehives with chocolate and rum), jezky (hedgehogs with chocolate and coconut), and perníčky (a honey gingerbread that is very popular). I would suggest recipes on czechcookbook.com or czechmatediary.com.

Czech people also love Christmas movies. My top three favorites are:

Finally, If you would like to hear more about Czech Christmas traditions this is a good place to go: http://catvusa.com/broadcast/december-22-2014/ I would also welcome you to share your experiences below!

Czech Holidays 2015

I found the following information about Czech holidays on expats.cz and thought you might find it fun and informative. I will be posting more detail about many of these holidays soon!

Here’s the link to the site: http://www.expats.cz/prague/article/czech-culture/czech-holiday-calendar-2015/

The following is a list of the national holidays observed in the Czech Republic. Most offices, businesses and local shops close and public transport timetables follow the Sunday schedule.

In 2015, ten out of the following twelve public holidays fall on a weekday. Office workers rejoice: this is the highest rate of holidays/workdays possible in the Czech calendar.

Thursday, 1 January: New Year’s Day/Czech Independence Day (Nový rok/Den obnovy samostatného českého státu)
Not just the first day of the year, but also a celebration of the restoration of the Czech Republic, which officially split with Slovakia on January 1st, 1993. Czech saying: Jak na Nový rok, tak po celý rok, which means: ‘as on New Year’s Day, so will be the new year’. Also: don’t eat chicken for New Year’s dinner, lest your luck for the coming year fly away.

Monday, 6 April: Easter Monday (Velikonoční pondělí)
The only movable holiday in the Czech calendar. Czech tradition: women are beaten (not viciously) with whips made from willow sticks on Easter Monday. Men receive painted eggs or shots of plum brandy (slivovice) in return for whipping of women. Alternatively, or additionally, women can be thrown into cold water (preferably a stream, though a bathtub will suffice).

Friday, 1 May: Labor Day (Svátek práce)
International Workers’ Day in many countries (though not the US or UK). Also known as May Day, this day is celebrated for different reasons throughout the world. Head up to Petřín hill and rejuvenate your love life with a kiss under one of the numerous blossom-laden trees on its slopes, a tradition left over from a pagan fertility rite.

Friday, 8 May: Liberation Day (Den osvobození)
Date marking Czech liberation from Germany at the end of the Second World War. Germany signed the terms of surrender on May 8, 1945, and the German army in Prague surrendered on the morning of May 9.

Sunday, 5 July: St. Cyril and St. Methodius Day (Den slovanských věrozvěstů Cyrila a Metoděje)
Date commemorating the religious teachers St. Cyril and St. Methodius, who translated Christian literature into the Slavic language in the ninth century.

Monday, 6 July: Jan Hus Day (Den upálení mistra Jana Husa)
Date commemorating religious reformer Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. July 5-6 usually combine to create a long weekend of relaxation, preferably spent at a summer cottage.

Monday, 28 September: St. Wenceslas Day/Czech Statehood Day (Den české státnosti)
Commemorating St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech people and the Czech Republic, who was killed in September of 929 or 935 (there are some discrepancies regarding the year of his death). Czech statehood is also celebrated on this date.

Wednesday, 28 October: Independent Czechoslovak State Day (Den vzniku samostatného československého státu)
Date of the foundation of Czechoslovakia, which declared independence from the Hapsburg Empire at the end of World War I.

Tuesday, 17 November: Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day (Den boje za svobodu a demokracii)
Date commemorating the beginning of the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Student demonstrations on 17 November (International Students’ Day) marked the beginning of the end for the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.

Thursday, 24 December: Christmas Eve (Štědrý den)
The main Christmas celebration in the Czech Republic – the time when presents are exchanged and a traditional Christmas dinner (carp soup, fried carp, carp surprise, etc.) is served.

Friday, 25 December: Christmas Day (1. svátek vánoční)
More Christmas gatherings with extended family, but the main celebration in the Czech Republic takes place on Christmas Eve.

Saturday, 26 December: Second Day of Christmas (2. svátek vánoční)
Celebrated as Boxing Day in the UK and Canada, the Czech Republic officially recognizes the date as the “Second Day of Christmas”, or St. Stephen’s Day, as it is celebrated in many other countries. St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but the date is generally celebrated as the extension of Christmas that its Czech name implies.

The following are culturally important days in the Czech Republic but are not public holidays:

27 January: Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust (Den památky obětí holokaustu)
Date in honor of those who died during the Holocaust. On January 27, 1945, the concentration camp at Osvětim (Auschwitz) was liberated.

8 March: International Women’s Day (Mezinárodní den žen)
International holiday in honor of women, celebrated by many European nations and recognized by the United Nations.

12 March: Czech Republic Enters NATO (Vstup České republiky do NATO)
Remembering March 12, 1999, when the Czech Republic joined NATO.

5 May: May Czech Uprising (Květnové povstání českého lidu)
Date marking the Czech uprising against German occupation in early May, 1945. May 5 was the date the uprising spread to Prague.

27 June: Remembrance of the Victims of the Communist Regime (Den památky obětí komunistického režimu)
Date remembering those who died under communism. Political activist Milada Horáková was executed on June 27, 1950, by the communist regime.

11 November: Veterans’ Day (Den válečných veteránů)
International holiday remembering those who have served in the armed forces. The First World War officially ended on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month in 1918.

Name Days
Each day of the year comes with a Czech name (or names) to be celebrated. It is common practice to give flowers (or some other gift) on a person’s Name Day – you’ll notice many of the flower shops around town often list name days on a blackboard outside. For a full list of Name Days see here.

Sváty Mikulaš Den

In the previous post, I wrote about the skánzen in Stražníce. The day I visited the skánzen is one of my favorite memories from living in the Czech Republic. Skánzen are living museums where people are dressed in kroj (or traditional Czech clothing) and proceed through their day as if they were living in the 1800’s. The older women shuck beans, men tend to livestock, and younger women bake for the holidays. Each of the buildings, farm equipment, linens, and cookware are all preserved artifacts donated by local persons or exact replicas.

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The day was December 6th, Sváty Mikulaš Den or Saint Nicholas day. Everyone was busy getting ready for Christmas, or so I thought, but this day is also a holiday widely celebrated in Czech Republic. December 6th is the day that kicks off all the Chrismas festivities, and as I explored the museum I noticed some interesting things:

There were three people in costumes, not in kroj, but costumes like you would see on Halloween in the States. First, there was a man in red bishop’s robes, with a white beard, tall hat, and staff. On either side of Saint Nicholas is an angel and a devil acting upon his judgement. The angel wore all white with wings and halo. She had golden curls and a star on her forehead. The devil was all black with a mangy black wig. He was very dirty, like a breathing piece of coal.

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On that particular day, there were children from all the local schools. The trio traveled house to house giving verdicts to the children on their behavior. The children would sing Saint Nicholas songs to try to get in his good graces. If they were naughty, they were marked with soot on their foreheads and given coal or spoiled potatoes (the mark of a truly naughty child) . But if they were good, they received a white mark and sweets, usually dried apples and nuts.

I was marked naughty, but I still got sweets and an invitation to warm around the fire with the actors. A flask of Becherovka (a Czech liquor made with anise) was passed around as an adult treat. The group asked me many questions about who I was and why I came to Stražníce. They were all very nice and welcoming and even offered to give me a private tour of the rest of the museum. I learned how to cast iron (for good luck and a good marriage); how to make wooden ornaments with a tiny hand saw; and how to cut cut an apple in half correctly to ensure good fortune for the year. I also got to meet some of the folk dancers and sing a few Czech carols (called koledy).

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The idea of a Christmas figure giving judgement on behavior and gifts is not unfamiliar to Americans. We usually think of this person as Santa. Santa is elusive. He lives at the North Pole and can see our every good or bad move (which he also keeps a list of) in order to determine if we should get gifts when he flies across the world. Children never see Santa, but songs, books, and tales from our parents allow us to believe as children. We are told that if we don’t behave throughout the year Santa will put us on the naughty list and we will get coal in our stocking.

These ideas have many parallels to Central European and Czech Christmas traditions. In the Czech and Slovak Republics St. Nicholas gives the judgement, but it is his helpers the angel and devil who give gifts or coal. The devil is not unlike the Northern European Krampus who only judges the bad children by putting them in his sack and carrying them home to eat (okay, maybe they only look similar).

Children do not receive gifts from Santa on Christmas Eve either, but get them from Baby Jesus. This can seem odd because the Czech Republic is admittedly one of the most secular and non-religious countries in the world. I was told by a German friend that Jesus brings gifts because Martin Luther discouraged the figure of St. Nicholas during the Protestant Reformation, accounting for the change of date from December 6th to December 24th, which is the day we celebrate Jesus’s birth. The Czech Republic became Catholic in the 7th Century and then was instrumental in early Protestantism during the Hussite Revolution in the 14th Century (200 years before the rest of Europe). It stayed a religious country until the 20th century, which may account for both traditions still being celebrated today.

Those of you who have Czech ancestry may remember this tradition. How did your family celebrate Sváty Mikulaš? And how does if differ from the traditional holiday?