Saturday, December 8, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas (Date Night 7)

Date Night #7 - December 9th, 2007
Temperature: High 42 °F / 5 °C, Low 32 °F / 0 °C
Location: Old Town Square, Prague

We walked right into the pages of a Christmas fairytale tonight when we stepped into Prague's Old Town Square. The twin gothic spires of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn tower in the night sky above us, windows at the very top of the turrets orange eyes watching the scene far below. Usually, the tower dominates the square. Tonight, though, a massive tree draped in red and white lights steals the show.

The square is like the Christmas Song come alive. Shoppers dressed up like Eskimos to ward off the winter chill wander through rows of decorated wooden booths topped with bright red roofs. We pick up a bag of real live chestnuts - roasted over an open fire in a corner stall. On the stage below the tree, Yuletide carols are being sung by a children's choir. The stable on the side of the square has already packed up for the day, the sheep and goats carted away to a warmer spot for the night.

The aroma of roasting ham wafts through the air, pauses, then mingles with the steamy tang of a cauldren of svařák (hot wine). Pastry chefs roll out tubes of Trdelnik - a Czech pastry coasted in sugar and crushed almonds). We can't resist the crepe hut - and come away with a delicious triangle of folded pleasure - dripping in chocolate sauce. We finish our progressive dinner at the ham roastery, where the vendor cuts a hunk of ham off the spit, slaps it on the scale, and serves it up along with a hearty roll and a dollup of horseradish.

... Click here to continue readingChristmas ornaments, candles, nativity scenes, gloves, hats and wooden toys feature in crowded booths in between the food. These vendors are equipped for tourists too - "sprechen sie Deutsch? Italiano? Francais? Enlish?" they ask passing shoppers.

As we pass the stage, the choir is just finishing up for the night, and amid the throngs of Christmas shoppers, just below the glistening lights of the Christmas Tree, we make a discovery. In a makeshift stable at the base of the tree lies a nativity - a silent reminder of a tiny event, so many years ago.

Among the hubub of a busy census, searching desperately for shelter from the cold, a travel-wearied man supports a woman who's clearly pregnant. They've been on the road for days, making the long journey from Nazareth, 120 miles to the North. They didn't hop on the train or drive down in the family station wagon. Most likely, they walked... and walked... and walked some more. You know, I bet the booths were out in Bethlehem the night they arrived! Vendors from all over town, setting up shop to take advantage of the sudden influx of tourists registering for the census. I doubt there were any Chestnuts or Trdelnik for sale that night though... hummous and flatbread probably took the place of crepes at the food stalls in Bethlehem. All the hotels are full. Door after door displays a "no vacancies" sign. Finally, though, away from the chaos of the marketplace, the weary couple find a corner of solitude... in a stable on the outskirts of town. And none to early either! All this walking has taken its toll, and the baby just isn't going to wait any longer. A feed trough is hastily converted into a cradle... a stableboy brings in a bucket of water... and in a moment... amid the smells of an occupied barn, a stone's throw away from the crowded marketplace... a King is born. A King who ruled no lands, commanded no armies, and overthrew no occupiers. A King though, whose birth is still celebrated around the world, and even here, in what's possibly the most Athiest country in Europe... by choirs of kids, stables full of live animals, and nativity scenes in town squares.

Among the hustle and bustle of the season, amidst the Christmas markets, the singing choirs, the throngs of shoppers and shelves of ornaments, take the time this week to pause... and listen. And maybe... just maybe, from the nativity in the glow of the Christmas tree, you'll hear the faint cries of the babe in the manger 2000 years ago that got all this excitement started.

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