Being an EFL teacher, with all of its lesson planning and headaches, sometimes provides a very worthwhile perk – getting to talk with your students about local culture and traditions. In preparation for the holiday season this year, I did just that with my Czech students.
Old Bohemian tradition holds that Christmas Eve is a mystical day. A day on which a person can, with the right tools, look into the future of the year ahead to see what lays in wait for him. These traditions – described to me in detail by my students – and the tools needed to carry them out were my gifts to my friends this year at Christmas.
After our expat Christmas dinner, cleverly avoiding the Czech tradition of eating carp, I gathered my friends in the living room to see what kind of year we could all expect in 2007.
The quickest of the three traditions I had planned for the evening involved an apple for each person. As I passed out the apples I explained that everyone will take their apple and slice it down the middle, horizontally. Once you have done this open the apple up and look at the core. If the core makes the shape of a star it means that your coming year will be a happy one and that you will find success in whatever you pursue – your normal fortune cookie style message. If the core of your apple, however, makes a cross or some other shape, it means that you might want to stay inside and lock the doors for the entirety of the next year – death and pestilence and all that.
There is a very simple trick to this tradition, though. Only one type of apple has a core that does not form a five-sided star when cut horizontally. The trick is to avoid buying this variety, and you will never have to tempt fate with a bad apple.
We all took turns passing around a knife to slice open our apples and find out what the next year will be like, each of us displaying our star-shaped cores as we went. I could not bring myself to put a bad apple in the mix and doom someone to an unpleasant year.
For the next tradition I had a large bowl of water sitting on the coffee table – I am talking punch bowl large. I passed out walnuts to all of my insight seeking friends, along with a nut cracker, and told them they were more than free to break the walnut open and eat it, as long as they managed to leave one half of the walnut shell undamaged for the upcoming experiment in foreseeing our futures.
Once we all had our undamaged walnut shells I passed out teeny little birthday candles for everyone and passed around a few lighters.
“You see, the walnut is going to be a boat and we need to get these candles in their boats to provide the boats with some propulsion – also, somehow make your boat distinguishable from everyone else’s, without somehow damaging the buoyancy of the boat.”
Everyone took their walnut shell boats and melted the bottoms of their candles so they would stick to the bottoms of the boats. There were several different colors of candles, so most boats were distinguishable, but a few did take on some other peculiar decorations.
I explained that whatever the boats did once placed in the water would somehow represent what will happen to each of us during the coming year. If one boat goes off by its-self that person will be moving away from everyone else in the next year. If two boats came together then those two people will be very close friends – or maybe something more – during the coming year.
We all lit our little candles and placed our miniature boats in the punch bowl of water. Of course, it took only a few moments for the question that should have been obvious before this ever started to be asked.
“What does it mean when Kenny’s boat sinks?”
“Um – I’d really rather not um… speculate on… I don’t know – my students didn’t mention that possibility.”
And of course the inevitable, “I can’t believe Kenny’s dead,” jokes had to come.
So, it wasn’t a complete success as far as happy endings to little traditions that may or may not predict the future go – but some boats came together, another made little continuous circles and one or two went off by themselves. Hardly any notice was paid to these boats, though, as we all watched Kenny’s tiny boat with its little pink candle tip to one side, start to fill with water and slowly at first, but then quickly, sink to the bottom of the bowl.
After the initial joking began to ebb we all reassured Kenny that it – probably – meant nothing. That it was just a silly, ancient little tradition for our entertainment. We fished Kenny’s sunken boat out of the water so that we could move on to the third and final tradition, which also made use of the bowl of water.
This tradition was the one I found the most puzzling, and fascinating, when first described to me by my students – and I knew immediately that I had to do it.
You take a plum, heat it over a fire, then throw it into a bowl of water. The sudden change in temperature will cause the plum to quickly change shape- like a raisin. When studied closely one can predict events of the coming year from the tiny shapes formed in the disfigured fruit.
I could never get any of my students to explain to me what kind of shapes might mean what kind of happenings, but that wasn’t going to stop me from at least trying. What almost stopped me was having to find fresh plums in the Czech Republic in late December. I did, however, find some after visiting many crowded grocery stores and finally a small, hidden fruit market across town.
I explained all of this to my friends as I passed out my hard-won plums. Since we don’t have a fire or fire place, and since the stove was electric, I decided to use the lighters that we already had out from the last exercise.
Being the bringer of this tradition, I offered to go first to demonstrate the techniques needed and to show off my brilliant plum-wrinkles reading talent. I heated the plum over a butane lighter while holding it with a pair of cooking tongs until it looked nice and hot and toasted. I then tossed it into the water with a little bit of a magicians flair to add to the ambiance.
The sudden change in temperature did not simply change the shape of my plum into a little burnt prune looking thing. No – it, along with my hopes for the future, exploded when it made sudden contact with the cold water.
It would be an understatement to say that no one was jumping in line to go after me.