When Pigs Fly: Thoughts on Slavs, Santa, and eating the family pet
Let me tell you a little bit about my people…
Slavs are salty. Playful but intense, eccentric. We thrive on poetic double meanings, and can be as dark as we are passionate and sentimental. We believe in curses and we believe in that tiny, niggling feeling – the kind that prophecies are made of. The soul’s equivalent of that barely detectable scratch in your throat just before a debilitating bout with the flu.
We’ve brought the world bawdy intellectuals, literary janitors, scientist priests and philosopher politicians.
And we are warm. We welcome our guests not with a shake of the hand and a cold drink, but a kiss, an embrace, a plate of hot food and a glass of strong liquor that burns as it goes down.
It’s about this time of year that I get sentimental about being a Slav, because, well, I’m an American. I married an American guy and my kids can butcher all of about 3 Czech words (my fault – I know). We do the Santa thing – Christmas morning and all that. And I’m not complaining. Santa is probably the best mythical character ever invented, inspiring millions of parents each year to feign his existence in order to give their children a little bit of magic. That, as far as I’m concerned, makes him about as close to real as you can get.
But I do miss my Czech traditions – and not despite the fact that they sound so weird to Santaphiles, but because of it. Our myths and holiday customs embody all the bewildering contradictions of the Slavic race.
We scoff at Santa, but convince our children that a golden pig will fly across the night sky to signal the arrival of their gifts on Christmas Eve. Said gifts are delivered by none other than the baby Jesus, who most Czechs don’t believe in anyway.
We are, sadly, an agnostic lot.
Our Christmas dinner – eaten on Christmas Eve – is not the lavish spread we’ll whip up for any old Saturday night, but a humble meal befitting the simple carpenter in whose honor it’s eaten. Carp soup, carp filet (baked or fried) and potato salad.
Though many of us despise our traditional Christmas meal, we eat it with a reverence left over from our staunchly Catholic past. It’s eaten for tradition, but it’s also consumed with a certain feeling of sentiment for the dark gray bottom-feeder that spent the last few days of his life swimming in our bathtub. A defacto member of the family, he’d been named, talked to, fed. How many kids get to watch their mother chop the head off their beloved new pet? Then eat it.
And if we’re Christian by birth, we go to Midnight Mass. Hell, if we’re Jewish by birth, we probably go, too. Just in case.
I remember one Midnight Mass in St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague when the priest officiating berated the congregation for nearly three-quarters of an hour for being terrible Christians. Despite the fact that the house was packed to a standing-room-only crowd, he made the reasonable assumption that few of those present were actually people of faith.
Such is the contrary nature of the Slav. We’re too darned left-brained to submit to something as subjective and intuitive as faith, but too superstitious not to show up at mass on Christmas Eve.
“A maddening people,” my husband says. But he loves us anyway, and has always been a really good sport about the fact that nearly all holiday dinner table talk starts with some older relative’s thousandth retelling of his time in the gulag. But it ends with boisterous laughter – most of the time. Or a ribald joke – regardless of how many tender, young ears are present.
We come from a tough part of the world, historically speaking – and we can talk about it. We can laugh about it, too.
In that spirit, I’d like to end with a quote from Adolf Hitler, if I may:
“Slavs are a mass of inborn slaves…all of the Slavs, especially the Poles and particularly the Czechs are an inferior race and need to be ruled with an iron fist.”
To that I say, Merry Christmas, Mr. Hitler. I’d offer you warm grog and a bowl of goulash, but I’m an American – so you can f**k off. And Merry Christmas to anyone reading this. God Bless You. I mean it.