Alena Klovikova makes certain that her kiosk in the Old Town of Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is open Dec. 1-Jan. 13, from 10 a.m.-10 p.m., while the historic city celebrates the Advent season as children congregate to sing ancient carols and vendors sell their wares.
Christmas ornaments of straw and cut-glass angels sell briskly as thousands of tourists and locals flood the cobblestone streets near the “Astronomical Clock” at the ancient city’s historic square.
Ms. Klovikova’s religious ornaments come from the village of Hodonin and are displayed in her kiosk that is one in a brightly lit row where a variety of cakes, cookies and chestnuts are available in addition to the decidedly more secular key chains and other tourist paraphernalia in demand.
On the edge of the historic square is the Old Town Hall composed of an imposing 230-foot high tower, three adjacent houses and, yes, the “Astronomical Clock” that was first installed in 1410.
Every hour wooden statues of the twelve apostles file past two small windows as bells ring out the time. The clock’s intricacy evokes the scientific work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Tycho Brahe who were well acquainted with Prague that is known for having “a 100 spires.”
But the clock’s history also is symbolic of the brutality that the city experienced in both the distant and not too distant past.
As the fame of the clock spread throughout Europe, city fathers of many European cities wanted an equally prestigious one, much like today cities all over the world want the highest tower.
In order not to be outdone, Prague’s city councillors had the clock’s inventor and builder, Master Hanus, blinded to ensure that there would be no duplicates.
Founded more than 1,000 years ago, Prague has been the political, cultural and economic centre of central Europe over the years with its fortunes rising and falling.
At one point it was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire as well as an important city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I it became the capital of Czechoslovakia and could boast of being one of the strongest manufacturing economies in Europe.
In contrast to the good times, the city experienced extraordinary violence during the Protestant Reformation, the Thirty Years’ War and in the 20th century during both World Wars and the post-war Communist era.
Today as Prague celebrates Advent and the coming of Christ, there are enormous Christmas trees and beautifully carved creches throughout its squares.
During the day the decorations may provide a sharp contrast to the grey skies of winter, while at night the city glows from one end of its west bank and eastward across the Charles Bridge, named after Charles IV who reigned during the 14th century, that crosses the Vltava river.
Prague’s modern shopping malls, such as the modern Palladium at the far end of a large square that provides ample room for Skoda streetcars to whizz by, is filled with the sounds of shoppers and recorded carols.
At Ms. Klovikova’s booth, which attracts clusters of shoppers seeking more traditional gifts, the Christmas spirit also reigns, even if she doesn’t have time to go to any of the city’s many churches to celebrate the season.
“I have to stay here and work,” she told Global Atlanta during a recent visit as a guest of the Czech Tourism Ministry and George Novak, the Atlanta-based consul general of the republic who is a native of Brno in the Moravian region of the country.
On this most recent visit, Mr. Novak was hailed by old friends and new including Andrew H. Schapiro, the recently arrived U.S. ambassador to the republic, since being awarded with the highly prestigious Medal of Merit First Class during ceremonies held Oct. 28 at the Prague Castle celebrating the 96th anniversary of Czechoslovakia.
He even managed to arrange for Global Atlanta an interview with the Czech president, Milos Zeman. The former party boss, social democrat and first president to be voted in by a countrywide electorate cited sources that claim his country to be the most “agnostic” in Europe as well as the most “skeptical.”
Nevertheless, he said, Advent is widely celebrated throughout the republic as a means of spreading goodwill within families and their communities. And he added that appreciation of giving gifts as opposed to receiving them reinforces these positive feelings.
To further emphasize this observation, he cited the drabness of the Czech cities and villages during the 40 years of Communist rule from 1948 to 1989 in contrast with the widespread colorful renovations of town squares and dwellings today, calling many of the country’s views “magical.”
Before the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which marked the end of Communist rule, Advent was hardly celebrated except privately by the most diehard Christians as the regime discouraged religious observances and maintained a firm grip on all social and economic activities thereby stifling both economic and cultural life.
Mr. Zeman, an economist, quickly mentioned the republic’s growing economy and favorable economic statistics, but underscored its rich Christian cultural tradition, which, he said, provides the foundation for the resurgence of the religious traditions during the holiday, even in the face of the population’s religious skepticism.
Prague provides a magnificent setting for the holiday with its winding alleyways that pour out onto a variety of squares surrounded by buildings that date back centuries and boast different architectural traditions.
Despite enduring Communist rule and two World Wars in the 20th century, Prague suffered less damage than some other cities in the region and consequently preserved the continuum of architectural styles in its churches and public buildings.
Since the collapse of Communism, renovations have proceeded at a rapid pace with many houses bearing repaired roofs and freshly painted exteriors.
The result is a mix of old and new architectural designs ranging from the earliest Romanesque period to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Art Nouveau and contemporary styles such as the “Dancing Building,” also known as the “Fred and Ginger” building named after Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, created by the architects Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry.
Prague’s Advent on Dec. 5 was in full swing when trios composed of St. Nicholas, a devil and an angel, tour the city and decide which children deserve to receive ginger bread cookies and other delicacies or gifts of potatoes and coal.
Global Atlanta experienced the excitement at the ZS Frantisky Plaminkove elementary school when older students descended on the youngsters and welcomed them into the centuries’ old tradition by marking their faces with coal and red chalk.
Meanwhile, devout Christians from around the world visit the “Prague infant Jesus” in the church of Our Lady Victorious, which has received many creches as donations to celebrate Christmas.
Advent wreaths also abound and their symbolism is respected as one candle is lit on the first Sunday of Advent and then another for the following weeks until Christmas in the churches and in homes across the city.
Yet for a minority such as Teresie Beckova, a director of programming at Czech Radio, these practices hardly fulfill their spiritual quest. She looks forward to the season as a time to meet with members of the Taize ecumenical community at her favorite Trappist cloister in the nearby Bohemian countryside.