Christmastime is here.

Christmastime is here (and has been here)!  Some of you might know my tendency for beginning the celebration of advent a bit prematurely . . . try October . . . or September.  This obsession was encouraged by a college roommate, and in her memory I began listening to Sufjan Stevens' Christmas music in September.  Though my city has been void of snow thus far, I have been enjoying the Christmas decorations which adorn offices, streetlamps, and public squares.  Markets are open in both the downtown city square as well as the smaller square in my section of the city.

My first visit to this city's Christmas market, I made friends with a Polish woman and a Czech man which work at a stand selling scarves.  We spoke in a mixture of broken English, fluent Czech, Polish Czech, and American-accented, broken Czech.  I particularly enjoyed the pantomime that sometimes appeared.  The man wanted to know if I was from Colorado, because it is a great place to go skiing (pronounced SKY-ing, of course).  I have since returned to the market and given them greetings in between eying carved ornaments and enjoying such Christmas treats as svařák (mulled wine), trdelník, and candied almonds.

When I returned to the market this weekend with another American, I was pleased to also make the acquaintance of a donkey, a miniature horse, and this llama at the petting zoo.  The only one I actually pet was the donkey; he nibbled at my hand and then gave me the cold flank when my hands proved to be made of flesh rather than carrots.

I had the pleasure of also seeing the Christmas markets in Vienna and Prague.  People rave about them, but they're merely stands full of candies, hot drinks, and ornaments.  I have had more joy brought to my heart in the simple gestures of my colleagues.  My first Christmas surprise came one Monday at work when three colleagues gave me an advent wreath they made by hand:

I was a bit surprised to see so many advent wreaths in such a secular nation; however, I soon learned that the making of the wreaths is as normal as decorating a Christmas tree, often void of any religious motivations.  I love the wreath, as well as the arch in the middle (which we decided was representative of Arches National Park).  My next surprise came when a colleague greeted me with a cryptic package wrapped in paper.  Inside I found a poinsettia friend.  This was especially welcome, seeing as I killed off poor Pepa the pansy.

This particular colleague, Jana, had not yet exhausted her generosity.  She and I spent Friday and Saturday baking Christmas cookies.  I greeted her Friday night with an advent wreath, and she greeted me with mistletoe.

Trees hosting mistletoe
my mistletoe
Apparently the number of berries is indicative of how wealthy you will be.  Earlier this autumn, I was confused by something I noticed on the trees after their leaves had fallen.  It was like a nest, but it seemed to be some kind of growth.  It was Jana who told me that this was mistletoe.  Apparently, mistletoe grows as a parasite.

I ought not neglect the subject of Christmas baking, which is something of a competitive sport among Czech women.  The recipes are endless and consist of various baked and non-baked cookies, often including jams, dried fruit, nuts, coconut, and much more.  Women often ask each other how many different kinds of cookies they made as an assessment of her prowess as a cook.  We made about six kinds by my count, which Jana shrugged off as amateur.  Two of those were American-style cookies.  I was able to continue my tradition of making sugar cookies, and I also introduced Jana to the American oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. 

The lack of brown sugar changed the texture a bit, but I substituted it for white sugar and honey, and the taste is still quite nice.  The entire time was exhausting and lovely.  Of course, I couldn't leave without Jana giving me another gift, a lovely handmade ornament made by some Czech/Slovak craft tradition that I don't know the name of.

The Christmas preparations and celebrations continue.  There are yet advent concerts, Christmas concerts, and Christmas parties to be had and enjoyed.  Though it is somewhat surreal to consider Christmas apart from my family, I can't help but increase in joy and appreciation as the holiday nears.


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