The Pre-Christmas Discipline

The pictures of the yolka (New Year fir or spruce tree) that were imported from the Soviet Union into Czech illustrated magazines, did not differ greatly from the traditional image of the Christmas tree. As before, glass decorations hung from the branches and a star sat on the top of the tree.

The emblems of New Year’s celebrations in the early 1950s clearly fed from symbols of the old Christmas, in the same way the Marxist science fed on “the imperative imagery of Prophets”. The similarities between Marx’s predictions, that were to become the true and only science regarding the principles of social evolution, and a religious vision, have been noted by an array of authors: from Nikolai Berdyaev, in whose deliberations Marxism is the completion of the Old-Testament Israel’s theological and power polemics with the false prophet Jesus Christ, to Václav Černý. “It is certain that what regards the image of the human development, and even more predictions of such development, it was the religious vision of Yahwism that served as an example for Marxist basic features and general lines of force” [1]. Scientific work can be based on facts alone; can propose hypotheses that will be either proven or disclaimed by further research, but it cannot resort to prophecy. “In the Marxist reality of completed Communism, we stand before a reality that has never materialized and is not guaranteed by any previous experience; it will allegedly happen one day, in the future, for the first and last time in history. Although Marx tries to find it at the end of scientific conclusions, this reality, predicted, pre-known and prophesised, cannot be a subject of scientific reasoning; we do not, at all, find ourselves in the area of scientific terminology, we find ourselves in the area of mystical notions full of Let there be and This shall happen drawn from the vocabulary of the imperative imagery of Prophets. All in all, Marxism is a religious phenomenon, it has always featured forms of religious fanaticism among its devotees, the apparent rock-solid certainty of its promises is not of scientific origins, it is based on the premise that the contents of its predictions are God’s will, Providence’s dictate, human society’s inevitable Fate” [2]. This fate is irreversible in this vision and shall crush Christ’s followers, as well as all others who do not believe in future general social justice. The Bolshevik revolution did, without any delay, exclude the Orthodox Church from the fleet of Soviet Russia’s states, but the Russian people’s synthetic personality, which had been previously united in Jesus Christ, left a legacy of the historical mission of the Russian nation “to bring into existence a worldwide political empire” [3].

Czechoslovakia faced the reality of imperial Communism after WW2 when the eastern tip of the pre-Munich republic, Carpathian Ukraine, became part of the Soviet Union. Following February 1948, a direct road was open towards the Sovietisation of society, or – to cite Edvard Beneš – “communisation” of the nation after the Soviet example. When Czechoslovakia became the prey of the Soviet empire, “the Marxist superpower had already found […]gigantic new role models […] in Russian national history” [4]. Among them were the Tzars’ victorious army commanders; a long line of Russian inventors and discoverers, whose ideas had a lead of decades against the developments of the Western science and engineering, the legendary heroes of byliny (oral Russian epic narrative poems), and also an ancient pagan deity, the Grand Elder of Eastern Slavs who became Дед Мороз (Ded Moroz = Grandpa Frost). The Soviet legend adjusted the dishevelled giant from nineteenth-century romantic mythologies into new usage so that he appeared before Czechoslovak children as an aging but well-built man with a neat appearance and a long and equally neat white beard. The attempts to install Ded Moroz, who was supposed to replace Baby Jesus as the moral authority supervising children’s behaviour was, in the early 1950s, accompanied by a massive campaign consisting of nursery rhymes, songs, short stories, and staged as well as graphic imagery.

 

Children are lining up for recitation at a meeting with Ded Moroz. Czechoslovakia, the first half of 1950s.

 

In November 1950, secretary of the Jičín branch of the Union of Czechoslovak-Soviet Friendship, Anna Jirásková prepared the scenario of an adventurous journey of Ded Moroz from the northernmost parts of the Soviet Union to Czechoslovakia. Local radio stations kept reporting about the individual stages of the trip until he really showed up among the children of the town of Jičín. (5)

 

Ded Moroz’s route from Chukotka to Czechoslovakia. Cover of the Ohníček magazine, 1952, n. 9.

 

It was proven that the easiest way into children’s hearts was through an absorbing plot. Perhaps the most famous narration explaining the “great twists and turns” that had taken place due to the Sovietisation of Czechoslovak culture (including Christmas holidays) was that of President Antonín Zápotocký whose radio address children could listen to on the 21st of December 1952.

 

Antonín Zápotocký, 21. 12. 1952

“You who are growing up do not realize how much has changed recently. Not even the legendary Christmas is the same any more. There are still shiny Christmas trees and presents to be had, but the nativity scenes that used to be a necessary element of Christmas festivities have been disappearing. The nativity scenes with Baby Jesus used to be a must in every household. […] Baby Jesus lying next to a little ox and donkey on straw in a cowshed, with the star of Bethlehem shining above – that used to be the symbol of the old Christmas. Why? It was supposed to remind the working and destitute people that the poor belonged in a cowshed. If Baby Jesus could be born in a cowshed, why couldn’t you live there? Why couldn’t your children be born there? That is why, in the times of the Capitalist rule when the rich governed and the poor toiled, working people often lived in cowsheds and their children were born there. The times have changed, though. Many twists and turns have taken place. Baby Jesus, too, has grown up and aged; he has a beard now and has become Ded Moroz. He no longer goes about naked and scruffy, he wears a nice fur cap and coat. Today, our working people and their children no longer go about naked and scruffy. Ded Moroz comes to us from the East and stars light his way, not only the Bethlehem one. A whole array of red stars on our mines, ironworks, factories and construction sites. These red stars merrily announce that in their workplaces, your Mums and Dads have fulfilled the duties of the fourth year of the first Gottwald’s five-year plan.”

The story of Baby Jesus who grew old and sports a beard, fur cap and coat contained one substantial feature that was preserved in Ded Moroz even during the “inevitable historical progress”: the sight with which he can see and penetrate through everything, and therefore discover even the smallest wrongdoings of children against daily routine and home and school order. Ded Moroz took over the role of an authority who would not hand over the desired present unless the small schoolboys and schoolgirls’ practices were deemed impeccable. The new Christmas, beginning already in November with procuring presents, and continuing with Ded Moroz’s journey across the Soviet Union (including the Trans-Siberian Railway and the Karakum Desert), remained a period of atonement for home and school sins. Children had the last opportunity to search their conscience and try to get things right.

 

A frame from the filmstrip Katherine and Ded Moroz. Text Anna Sedlmayerová. Graphic art Vojtěch Cinybulk. Made by the Czechoslovak State Film, 1956.

 

Stubborn truants, girls and boys with unwashed ears, children punished by longer hours at school, struggling arithmeticians, narcoleptics and hyperactive children were in jeopardy: everything that deviated from the norm could be duly penalized. The motif of a guilty child promising obedience in exchange for a present can be found in nursery rhymes, short stories and drama acts for national schools. The filmstrip Katherine and Ded Moroz (1956), whose script was written by Anna Sedlmayerová (1912―1995), belonged to the rank of stories about reformed idlers. Graphic artist Vojtěch Cinybulk (1915―1994) used cute Disney-like rounded shapes and rich colours to present to children a slovenly girl who disliked getting up and did not tidy her room.

 

Frames from the filmstrip Katherine and Ded Moroz. Text Anna Sedlmayerová. Graphic art Vojtěch Cinybulk. Made by the Czechoslovak State Film, 1956.

 

At school, Katherine struggles with Maths because she keeps thinking of Ded Moroz only. As soon as she gets to school, she starts writing a letter instead of doing schoolwork: “Dear Ded Moroz, bring me a puppet of a jester for Christmas, please.” She then fastens the letter to her dog Juk’s collar and sends him to deliver it.

 

Frames from the filmstrip Katherine and Ded Moroz. Text Anna Sedlmayerová. Graphic art Vojtěch Cinybulk. Made by the Czechoslovak State Film, 1956.

 

After a long and distressing journey, the doggie meets the wise owl who teaches him how to bow all the way down in front of the former deity. Vojtěch Cinybulk’s Ded Moroz is rather a circumspect bearded clerk though; his desk is snowed under with files and letters. There is even a phone in his office, and much of the space is taken by filing cabinets. The doggie delivers his little mistress’s wish, but the applicant is subjected to an assessment procedure first. The files are thus necessary: “It is here, where we keep all exact records on children.” Katherine’s request is turned down based on these records: “We have enough well-behaved and hard-working children,” says the strict Ded Moroz, “we don’t have presents for the likes of Katherine. And you’d better know that she doesn’t deserve you either. Such a good doggie! We’ll keep you here, we need someone at the door and you will love it here.”

 

Frames from the filmstrip Katherine and Ded Moroz. Text Anna Sedlmayerová. Graphic art Vojtěch Cinybulk. Made by the Czechoslovak State Film, 1956.

 

The loyal doggie is not happy with his comfortable position though, he would like to return home. After much begging, Ded Moroz decides to give Katherine another chance. He sends her an ultimatum: she either improves her behaviour or loses her Juk for good! And Katherine does change for the better – at home as well as at school! It goes without saying that Ded Moroz finds out since he has enough messengers who can tell him what Katherine is doing.”

 

Frames from the filmstrip Katherine and Ded Moroz (1956). The wise owl with a pencil and notebook in its claws watches the sleeping child and writes the daily report. Ded Moroz’s ultimatum hangs above the bed.

 

Every little citizen’s deeds are wholly transparent and each of them is filed away. Drawbacks do remain visible in the personality profile, but they can be alleviated by regular personal hygiene, exemplary preparation for school, considerate help to the elderly, and even by reading nice books. And it is in all children’s interest to change for the better because Ded Moroz will learn about all their deeds! Like before, obedience to home and school rule is forced on them under the threat of loss and promise of reward. That is the real nature of presents in the pedagogy of carrot and.

 

Frames from the filmstrip Katherine and Ded Moroz (1956). In the end, Katherine “gains from her positive change. She has everything she wanted – Juk as well as the puppet – and what is more, a clean conscience. From now on, she will forever stay a good girl working hard for the success of Communism.” Her pledge has no time limits and the contract with Ded Moroz will not expire when the New Year comes.

 

Ded Moroz did not bring any groundbreaking way of normalization of child behaviour. The new element consisted in the manner in which the godlike omnipresence materialized in a network of spies recording culprits’ deeds. The wise owl watched sleeping Katherine in her room; an inquisitive sparrow supervised schoolwork; a strict crow accompanied the child along the street. All the animals had notebooks and pencils and recorded and filed each event. Katherine saw the owl, sparrow and crow taking notes and she found it natural – why would she find it strange when, later, “findings” would be collected by a janitor, classmate or colleague at work?

 

A photo from a book by J. V. Trebišovský Školský film a diafilm (School film and filmstrip, 1958). “Children attending kindergartens and lower grades of elementary schools like to watch screenings of colour fairytale filmstrips. [...] These children’s stories introduce nature and society to children in an easy-going manner, educate them and help them become good people.”.

 

[1] Václav Černý, Paměti 1945–1972. Brno: Atlantis, 1992. p. 553.

[2] Ibid., p. 553.

[3] Ibid., p. 559.

[4] Ibid, p. 562.

[5] Petr Koura – Pavlína Kourová, České Vánoce od vzniku republiky po sametovou revoluci, Dokořán, 2010.