Saturday, December 12, 2015


(Excerpts taken from my autobiography *CZECHING MY ROOTS)

"In Cedar Rapids, Iowa where I was born there was a sizable Czech population when I was growing up in the 1930's and '40's. My father was born in Bohemia, which at the time was a province of Austria-Hungary, later called Czechoslovakia, presently The Czech Republic. His mother Frantiska, my grandmother, lived with us. Our family and relatives carried on some Czech traditions from their homeland.

An area of the West side of town along 16th Avenue was informally called “Czech Village” with shops catering to the Czech immigrants and a place where they gathered for their festivals and celebrations. Christmas customs were quite a big deal. The Feast of Saint Nicholas on the eve of December 5th officially kicked off the Christmas season. A drama was and still is reenacted annually with costumed children playing the parts of the Saint Nicholas legend.

As the story goes, Saint Nicholas descends every year from heaven on a golden cord. He is accompanied by an “andel” (angel) in white and a “cert” (devil) dressed in black with his face painted red. The wicked devil carries a switch and rattles a chain, while the sweet angel consults her book which lists the names of all good children. The children are asked whether they have been well-behaved and whether they say their prayers. The angel writes their response in her record book. If they nod honestly, they are given gifts of apples, nuts, gingerbread, and candy. The devil, lurking in the background, rattles his chain and stands ready to punish mischievous children with his switch and gives them his gift—a piece of coal. The “naughty or nice” aspect of children seems to have been carried over to the song “Santa Claus is coming to town.”

When I was born, Mother and Dad bought a little artificial tree about four feet high whose branches could be unfolded when they took it out of attic storage. It became our family tradition. Such early artificial trees were called “feather trees” and were popular among Czechs. 

We had authentic Czech hand-blown ornaments in various shapes and colors brought over by the immigrants. I remember the shapes of those ornaments to this day—delicate birds, flowers, animals, stars, bells, since I handled them with care and treasured them year after year. Tinsel rope garlands, foil icicles, and a tinsel star at the top completed the adorning of our little tree. As a teen I begged for “a real tree like everyone else” which my parents consented to buy, but Mother still decorated our “feather tree” throughout my college years. I don't know what happened to it after I was married and my husband and I left for China, but if I had it today and still had those ornaments, they would be a priceless collector's item. I would have been delighted to pass them on to my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Grandma kept the tradition of having a carp fish along with whatever Americanized menu we had for Christmas dinner, but she claimed it didn't taste the same because they were river mud carp and not the fresh pond carp of their little village. Grandma and my Dad went mushroom hunting in the spring and fall in the woodlands around our city and dried them on screens in our attic for later use. She always made pearl barley soup with mushrooms for Christmas Eve. The baking of traditional cookies with frosting and sprinkles filled our kitchen with holiday aroma. The making of a huge apple strudel was an annual event that required the help of several of my Czech aunts while my cousins and I played hide and seek and made ourselves a nuisance throughout the house.

Ours was not a church-going family in my early childhood. I didn't have the advantage of going to Sunday School or having any Christian reading material on my age level. My parents were good, hard-working people and it was during the Depression years of the '30's, so Sunday was their only day for rest. Church was not on their agenda. Only my grandma attended church and all 60 some members of the little Czech Evangelical and Reformed Church on the West side of town spoke Czech. The services were all in Czech. In fact, my grandma didn't even speak English. She did insist that I was baptized as a six month old infant, and in retrospect I know that God had His hand on my life from my birth.

Grandma was my live-in primary caregiver from my infancy since my parents were always working. She took me to church with her from the time I was a toddler, and I sat beside her during adult worship. I was too shy to be left alone in Sunday School, therefore I received no Christian training. I remember being fidgety and passing the time by looking at the fascinating colors of the biblical scenes depicted on the stained glass windows as the sun shown through.
Grandma brought me with her to Christmas celebrations at this little church from the time I learned to walk. My knowledge of Czech language was minimal, but I was intrigued by the costumes in the nativity play, the carols, the recitations by young children—all warm and friendly sights and sounds. 

I was wide-eyed at the Christmas tree that reached nearly to the ceiling and captivated by the many decorations brought from the Old Country (as they called the Czech lands) by families of the congregation. I remember the pungent fragrance of the pine branches mingled with the smell of the oil furnace in the basement of the one-room church, and the real candles in dishes on the window sills casting shadows against the stained glass windows. The small congregation sat in semi-darkness for the Christmas program. I can still visualize the sparkling star at the top of the tree. My childish eyes took it all in and I was full of “Whys?” to ask grandma when we were alone and it was tucking-in-bed time.

She tried to explain in simple Czech the story of the birth of Jesus, why the wise men rode on camels instead of motor cars, and why they wore “funny” clothes. I asked her whether all angels were named Harold. That puzzled her because she didn't understand the English words of the Christmas carols. “Hark! The herald angels sing” would have gone over her head. She asked the pastor to explain that one and they had a good chuckle at my expense.

When I began learning to read in school, Grandma gave my mother some money to buy a Bible in English as her gift to me at Christmas. She asked mother to write the date in it, then she carefully wrapped it for me under the Christmas tree. I still have that first Bible—a precious treasure from her.

Since I was an un-churched child as far as formal religious instruction went, I believe God had other ways for me to learn basic Christian truths. He used the simple words of Christmas carols to give me my first clear concept of His plan of salvation. They echoed sound, biblical theology.

From the carols I learned that: Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, King, born of a virgin in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. That He had come to ransom captive Israel and to set all men free. He had been expected for a long time. Jesus is Lord and came to reconcile God and sinners. His coming brings joy to the world, to heaven and earth, but each heart has to receive Him. God sends angels to announce God's plans. They proclaimed peace on earth and good will toward men. The prophets foretold the coming of a new heaven and earth where Christ will reign. Jesus left a throne in heaven to come to earth, is truly God made flesh, is risen from the dead and will suddenly come again. We must come together to adore Him, to worship Christ the Lord as the wise men from afar did who brought Him gifts. 
Jesus was born to give men second birth, 
and then we will never die.
 He casts out our sin and enters into our hearts if we receive Him.

Christmas carols carried a pretty accurate summary of the gospel and spoke louder to my child heart than any formal instruction. They were musical messengers to eventually bring me to a personal relationship with Jesus.”

*My autobiography CZECHING MY ROOTS is still available. Order from my email address.

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