Bratislava, December 19 (TASR) – The communist regime that ruled in the former Czechoslovakia for more than 40 years until 1989 attempted to suppress several Christmas traditions, especially in the notorious 1950s.
One curious incident of the time was then prime minister and later president Antonin Zapotocky’s public speech shortly before Christmas, calling for the introduction of red Soviet-like Bethlehem stars, also stressing that the Infant Jesus as people knew him had grown old and become the Soviet figure Ded Moroz [a similar character to Santa Claus – ed. note].
“However, these efforts were unsuccessful, and ordinary people especially in the Slovak countryside refused to give up their Christmas traditions. They even attended Midnight Mass, although they were perhaps afraid to go to church at other times, especially if they were employed in education, for example, like my mother. She used to go to church throughout the year shrouded in a veil so that she wouldn’t be spotted by the headteacher, but there was no reason to hide anything at Christmas,” poet Lubomir Feldek told TASR.
“I don’t even remember anyone in Slovakia being afraid to celebrate Christmas, despite the presence of a rival company, so to speak – Ded Moroz,” said Feldek.
Meanwhile, one idea that the communists had shortly after they assumed power in Czechoslovakia in 1948 was to somehow link Christmas to Joseph Stalin’s birthday on December 21. A special committee was set up to coordinate the celebrations, which indeed took place in an ostentatious manner as early as in 1949.
Ordinary people received a harder blow in 1951, however, when Zapotocky’s government slashed the traditional Christmas salary bonuses. This resulted in several minor strikes in late 1951, but they were of no avail, especially in light of the fact that such initiatives were punished mercilessly at the time.
Zapotocky, while prime minister, appeared before the public on December 21, 1952 with a speech that eventually became legendary: “The little Infant Jesus laying on straw in a sty [sic] next to an ox and ass, with a Bethlehem star shining above the sty – this is an image of old Christmas. Why? He was supposed to remind working people and the poor that they only belong to a sty. The idea was – if the Infant Jesus could have been born and lived in a sty, why shouldn’t you live there? Why shouldn’t your children be born there? This is how the rich and powerful used to speak to the poor. Times have changed, however; many turnabouts have been seen since then. The Infant Jesus has grown up, he’s become old, he’s grown a beard and he’s become Ded Moroz. He isn’t naked or shabbily dressed any more. He’s well clothed, wearing a fur cap and a fur coat,” said Zapotocky, urging children in particular to please Comrades Stalin and Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald by their orderly behaviour.
“This might sound funny now, but it was stated only a few weeks after the Rudolf Slansky process,” said Czech historian Petr Koura, referring to deadly purges via show trials in the Communist Party in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, children at schools in the run-up to Christmas at that time indeed used to be visited by Ded Moroz – who had allegedly arrived by train directly from the Soviet Union.
Later in the same decade the communists again allowed the public presentation of the Infant Jesus, but they attempted to turn Christmas into a holiday of consumption, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, the best television programmes were broadcast at the time of Midnight Mass.