Erazim Kohak - fond memories of Christmas free of Santa, Baby Jesus and presents

Erazim Kohak

Amid the feverish pre-Christmas preparations, few people have time to stop and think about the holiday's religious significance. That's true all over the world perhaps, but here in the Czech Republic there's also the added concern that traditional Czech Christmas traditions such as presents being delivered by the Baby Jesus are being shoved aside by Western imports such as Santa Claus. So what does Christmas mean to someone who does hold religious beliefs? Rob Cameron spoke to writer and philosopher Erazim Kohak, an active member of the evangelical church.

"My memories of Christmas are from some time in the 16th century. Ours was a protestant family - an evangelicka rodina - in which the old traditions, the traditions of the Jednota Braterska, were very strong and they were coloured by peasant traditions. But Christmas was for us very strictly a religious observance. For instance there were no presents. Presents were brought by St Nicholas on the eve of the 6th of December. But this business of a little naked baby flapping its wings and flying in through windows - that just did not fit. At Christmas we read, and the great gift was the salvation of the world."

So when, if ever, did the Baby Jesus make an appearance into your life?

"Very, very early, but it was denominationally coloured. I knew that in Catholic families, the Baby Jesus is said to bring presents. When my parents had to compromise and wanted to give me presents, then it was angels. It was a star, the Bethlehem star, and its rays, which materialised as angels. So we watched for the star to rise, I would hear the tinkling of a bell and this were the angels bringing in the presents in honour of the birth of Christ. They tried to avoid the Baroque conception of the Baby Jesus bringing presents. But I was very, very unusual, even in our church. None of my friends experienced Christmas quite this way."

Much has changed since then. Has the way that you celebrate Christmas changed or have you tried to keep those traditions alive?

"It has not changed. I did not have to try. For us, Christmas is still very much a religious holiday. We loved it in the old days when in the communist times and immediately after it, Prague on December 24th was just any other work day. There was Christmas in churches and in homes but not in stores. And not simply because there was not a whole deal to purchase...But we liked it very much. Right now I live with the sense that commercialisation has taken over our holiday, and used it for its own rather peculiar purposes."

Was this not just a natural result of the changes that happened in 1989? This was bound to happen, surely.

"It was bound to happen, but to call it natural would suggest that there is something in human nature that prompts a transition to capitalism. No it wasn't. It was the power of America, not human nature."

Is there anything good about the commercial side of this holiday?

"I think I can answer that very accurately and briefly - No. I do not see it."

Then would I find any of the trappings of Christmas in the Kohak home? A Christmas tree perhaps? Decorations?

"Oh definitely. We are embodied. We are not pure spirits. Therefore when we want to rejoice we have to act it out. There is going to be a Christmas tree, about 30cm high, but with bright lights on it. And there is a very traditional Czech manger, even though that was originally a Catholic, Baroque tradition rather than a protestant one. We're not fanatics. But the holidays mean so much for us religiously."