Joy Bellefontaine is Acadian French and proud of it, but having married a Czech husband and living in the Czech Republic for nearly 20 years she admits her family’s Christmas contains a mix of local and Acadian traditions. Tom McEnchroe, visited her to find out how foreigners living in the country celebrate their Christmas.
I am in a lovely flat located in the Prague neighbourhood of Hradčany with Mrs Bellefontaine, who is an Acadian French woman who has been living in Prague for nearly 20 years. Mrs. Bellefontaine could you tell me what you are preparing here?
“I am making a meat pie. It is a traditional Acadian French dish that we have for Christmas.”
Is that the only Acadian French tradition that you do, given that we are in the Czech Republic?
“No. Usually I try to make something from our home tradition. It is difficult because I do not get all of the ingredients here, but usually it is something to do with wild meats such as wild deer, rabbit, or some seafood for soup. Last year, for example, I made lobster bisque.”
Could you tell me a little bit more about this pie you are making?
“This is a traditional Acadian French meat pie. Inside is a mixture of beef, pork and onions. It is stewed for a long time with something that is very difficult to get – summer savoury. A herb that I haven’t found in Prague, but I can get from Bulgaria. It is also mashed with potatoes, which sounds heavy, it is, and then put into a pie.”
Is your Christmas purely Acadian French or is it also partly Czech and if so, what specifically?
“We kind of have a crossover as you can imagine. We make schnitzel of course, hard to get away from that. We also prepare potato salad. I did not really like it when I first got here, but it has grown on me a lot and now Christmas is not the same without it.”
Do you also have carp?
“Not if I am cooking. My husband’s mother had an excellent recipe for carp with which I cannot compete, so until I can make it the way that she would I will refrain.”
Could you tell me a bit more about this recipe that your mother-in-law has?
“Well, she soaks the fish in milk for a few hours before she does anything with it and I think that that really changes its flavour. It gets very soft and tastes like a very nice white fish when she is done.”
And I also have heard that you have a Vietnamese Czech woman living downstairs, another minority. How does her Christmas look roughly?
“Mimi has a great recipe for carp. She does it in a way that I think it is more Vietnamese than Czech. It is done with bůček, fatty pork, and it is just phenomenal. I love eating her carp actually.”
I also saw you have a daughter. Who brings her presents, Santa Clause or Ježíšek (baby Jesus)?
“My daughter has the benefit of both. We do Ježíšek at night and then have Santa Clause in the morning. It is a wonderful thing.”
If you had to describe from your experiences what the most marked differences between a Canadian Christmas and a Czech Christmas are, what would they be?
“I think the most marked difference that I’ve seen is of course that Christmas is mostly celebrated on the 24th here, whereas in Canada it is on December 25th. In my home tradition it is celebrated at night, where we stay up late, go to midnight mass and then we stay up after that almost all night opening presents and stuff like that. Here on the other hand the day of the 24th is the big deal. That is the big difference I think.”
“No. We have a little bit of both, so that is good.”
Being Acadian French and obviously quite proud of your heritage, how do you feel about this mix? Would you like your children to have a mixed Christmas in the future or would you like them to keep to the Acadian French ways?
“I think that because the Acadian French heritage is so old and at risk of dying out, it is important for me to carry it on as much as I can and pass it on to my daughter. However, the mix of the Czech and Canadian will develop into something even better.
“For me, it would not be Christmas without some of my tradition mixed in and some of my friends with mixed families also mix the traditions to create a sort of hybrid, fusion Christmas. I think it is nice to create your own traditions that way.”
Is there anything else you have specifically noticed about Czech Christmases?
“I don’t like the practice of watching television at Christmas time. I find that a lot of families here, although not all, but a lot, watch television over Christmas time. I know that it is a tradition to watch these fairy tales and I get that, but I am still not very keen on the television being on all through Christmas.“
There are of course all these little traditions that some people hold on to such as pouring lead into water and reading one’s future. Have you tried to experiment with any of these?
“I am not sure I know any of those really. I think that the unusual tradition for me is when at Mikuláš (Saint Nicholas day), the devils visit. Initially I thought it was a cruel and unusual situation, but over time I have come to realise that it is a really good learning experience for the kids. As they get older they feel strong and realise they do not believe any more.”
One thing that the Czechs like to insist on is that they have a very special nativity scene – Betlém, as it is known and it depicts everyone in the village and surroundings, whereas apparently in other countries, I do not know how it is in Canada, they just depict the close family. What does your nativity look like? Do you have one?
“I have a beautiful Betlém which was given to me by my Czech instructor, Ms Turbová, and it is just a few little ceramic figures, but it is adorable. “
How do you see the difference in the Czech Republic when celebrating between the city and the countryside? Have you ever been to villages for example or regional areas and do people hold on more to tradition there?
“I think in the villages people definitely hold on more to tradition. One thing that is kind of a touching note when you go to the villages is that as people burn coal, the scent adds a bit of a poignancy to the environment.”
If someone is about to move to the Czech Republic, what would you tell them they are likely to encounter in their Christmas here?
“I think the most shocking thing is the carp sale and the butchery on the corners in the days leading up to Christmas. To see this much blood on the street can be dramatic for a lot of people. I kind of like it because I think that a lot of families can get to choose their fish, have it cleaned in front of them, decide if they want to take the innards as well. I think it is quite nice.”
Another thing I have noticed about Czech Christmas traditions is the gifting of Christmas cookies. I can give an example, my grandmother has a friend in the United States, who is Czech and she sends her cookies even though they can take three weeks to arrive and are hard by the time they arrive. Have you encountered neighbours and friends giving you cookies over Christmas as well?
“Yes, I absolutely count on it because we don’t really make any Christmas cookies in our families, so generally every year we get some Christmas cookies as a gift from someone. I am really hoping someone out there is thinking of us and will give us some this year. “