I could hear the chains rattling on the second floor the moment I stepped into the stairwell. The bell had just signaled a break and scuffling of feet and creaking doors drowned out the somewhat ominous clank-chink-clank.
December 5 is Svátek Svatého Mikuláše – St. Nicholas Day. Typically, gifts are given and the Christmas atmosphere kicks into high gear.
But that’s certainly not the only thing about this peculiar Czech holiday.
You see, the tradition of Svatý Mikuláš includes three important figures – St. Nicholas himself, who appears not as a jolly old man, but as a bishop in flowing white robes; angels, sweetly designated to hand out candy; and the devil, the most prominent figure, if for no other reason than that people love a bad guy.
In schools, and in smaller villages and neighborhoods, I’m told, people will dress up as these characters and … well, I was about to find out just what exactly goes down on December 5th in the Czech Republic.
An hour before my first lesson, I trooped into school with a camera and a lot of expectation. I missed this event last year but it’s pretty widely talked about.
In 9.B, boys and girls were busy fixing their costumes and make-up. Each of the ninth grade classes had one Mikuláš and the rest of the unruly students were divided between the ranks of devils and angels. Our Mikuláš in 9.B was a sweet, albeit extremely wry, boy of average height and above-average prankishness. The angels were all girls (except for one, very small boy who donned a wig and satin nightgown just for the occasion) dressed in pretty white gowns, halos and fake wings.
But the devils are what really stole the show. Czech devils aren’t like American devils. There is no sheik suit, no slick horns, no sharp chins or forked tongues. Czech devils, which appear routinely in the popular (though cheesy) fairytales shown on television, are furry and fiendish. They have masses of black hair, vests of animal skins and fur-covered boots. Soot-painted faces gleam as the chains around their waists and shoulders rattle.
My students – though exceptionally cute on a normal day – looked every bit the part a Czech devil. For the girls and the smaller boys, this was an entertaining transformation. For the few gents who’ve already topped six feet, it was an intimidating one.
“Oh, sorry,” said a boy with a shaggy wig as he bumped past me. I caught a glimpse of his face and smiled.
“Hey!” I said, tugging on his elbow for him to stop. “What are you doing here?”
Radek transferred schools last year, a move he didn’t want to make. Leaving for Gymnazium in eighth grade and missing the ninth and final year is like moving to a new high school as a senior. You miss your old friends as they do the “senior thing.”
“I skipped class for the morning,” he told me with a sheepish grin. Radek was a favorite in 9.B and he sometimes comes back when the school has a special program like today to visit his old friends.
“Well,” I said, giving him a friendly pat, “It’s good to see you.”
He walked away and I heard my name. Three devil-decked students ran up to me with charcoal in their hands and began smearing my face.
“Having fun, are we?” I asked, not daring to move but not entirely sure what else to do. They giggled maliciously as someone gave me a mustache.
The bell rang again, issuing children into their classrooms, but 9.B waited in the hallway. Time to work!
In a few minutes, their class teacher bustled over and hurried everyone upstairs to 4.E, a ferocious collection of ten year olds. The door was shut. The hall was silent.
Then, the devils began pounding against the doorframe, yelling at rattling their chains.
It was enough to scare me. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a fourth grader in this country.
The door swung open and in trooped the posse of celestial beings, led by the dear old saint brandishing his tinfoil staff.
The angels stood aside and the devils ran through the classroom, smearing kids’ faces with chalk and chortling gleefully. Now and then, someone would grab a kid and drag them from the room.
Old Saint Mikuláš just leaned patiently on his cane with a disapproving look at the students. When the last fourth grader had been wrestled out of the room, kicking, yelling and (usually) laughing, Mikuláš glared down the remaining children.
“Well,” he said sternly in Czech. “Are you going to sing?”
With some encouragement from the two teachers in the room, the kids bumbled their way through a song and the angels glided their way between the desks passing out candy.
I slipped into the hallway. Here was a different scene entirely.
None of the corridor lights were on and even the large windows did little to illuminate the setting as grey sunlight seeped through thick panes of glass.
In the relative darkness, I could see what can only be described as a divine struggle.
It appeared as though several of the fourth grade boys had escaped and the devils seemed to be chasing them down. Most of the trapped souls were huddled between the darkly masked ninth graders, a few still attempting to break free. Sometimes they would be offered a potato, sometimes they’d be painted in more charcoal, and sometimes (if they put up enough of a struggle) they’d be shoved back into the classroom – kicked out of hell for bad behavior.
The six graders were next and things played out similarly. The raid, the singing, the candy, and the havoc in the hallway. The only difference was that the sixth graders were much less inclined to sing for the company of fidgeting angels, all tugging at their skirts and halos or hijacking the classroom chalk to scribble on the board behind them. Frankly, it looked like the devils were having a lot more fun.
The eighth graders were even more difficult to coax into song, and certainly too big to carry out of the classroom. Several of the more willing victims were led away, the rest sat looking as though they weren’t sure if imprisonment in the hallway wasn’t better than singing in the classroom.
There were no fugitives on the run this time as most of the eighth and ninth graders are friends. They allowed themselves to be painted in black and lumped reluctantly back to the classroom to resume lessons when the angels finished their routine.
The seventh graders downstairs were much like their sixth-grade counterparts, only harder to get out of the room. A larger boy refused to leave his seat, so the cheeky ninth grader grabbed his chair and dragged both ‘the horse and his boy’ from the class amid roaring laughter. A few moments later, another boy was shoved back into the classroom with a potato sack over his whole body. He found his chair and sat down without ever taking the bag of shame off.
By far, the fifth graders were the most entertaining. This is largely because 5.B houses some of the most rascally boys I have ever encountered in my life. It only took a few moments for my ninth graders to realize they might have been wearing the costumes, but they weren’t the real devils in this situation.
Captain of Chaos and Scallywag-Sweetheart Extraordinaire is the one and only, Lukáš. He’s got eyes the size of planets and a smile that spells trouble. He can squirm his way through the eye of a needle and he’s faster and more agile than any boy I’ve ever met. I spent the better part of last year trying to figure out how to get him to sit in a chair for more than three minutes at a time. I was largely unsuccessful. He climbed into cabinets, stole my keys and held them for ransom (that was a lesson: don’t ever bargain with the terrorists), and hid under my desk for nearly fifteen minutes before I realized where he was. The last one was a special feat for him just because he had to stay so still to go undetected.
The devil in charge – an equally headstrong girl who had positioned herself as the unofficial ringleader of the devils’ squad – had taken Lukáš from the room and was attempting to subdue him.
I could have told her, he would not be subdued. When I slinked out of the classroom and the forcefully cheery sounds of singing, Lukáš was grunting, elbowing and kicking like a spring colt. He bolted loose and took off down the hall, passing Radek who was dragging another runaway back fromt the stairwell.
It took the whole squad of ninth grade devils to stuff Lukáš into a bag, everyone holding a limb or a part of his writhing torso.
Even as his subduers tried to drag him back into the classroom, Lukáš squirmed and fought, finally breaking out of the bag in front of all his school mates.
Most of the devils collected in the doorway to watch the events that followed but I crept back into the hallway where Radek was waiting by a windowsill. It didn’t occur to me that something might be the cause of his isolation – he was always a quieter student.
“What do you think of everything?” he asked.
“Well,” I said, not wholly sure how to answer. “It’s definitely interesting. Much different than anything we do in the States.”
He looked at me as if that answer weren’t enough for his question.
“Honestly, I think it’s hilarious,” I said. “It’s so much fun. But It’s also a little sad to me.” His face drew in and he looked puzzled. “It’s sad to me because I know Hell is real and we’re making fun of something without understanding how serious it is. We’re joking about getting dragged away, but the truth is, without Jesus or the love of God, that’s exactly what will happen to us.”
He nodded his head. I’m not sure if he was processing what I just said or just trying to understand all the English. He speaks well, but second languages are difficult, always.
Having completed the ritual in the last class, 9.B and their teacher asked me to take their picture on the stairs.
“Is everyone in?”
“Can you take one with my phone too?”
“Someone’s standing on my tail!”
Then we all marched down to the principal’s office to sing for her and the vice-head with the other ninth graders, 9.C.
I let them do their thing and quietly slipped back up the stairs to my office. Sitting the hallway outside my door was Radek. He was leaning crosslegged against the wall the same way I had seen him every Wednesday afternoon last year before our afternoon English lesson. But this time he obviously wasn’t waiting for anything.
“Whatcha doing?” I asked, sitting criss-cross-applesauce in front of him.
“Oh, just sitting,” he said in rather a Pooh Bear voice.
“Do you like your new school?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. There was some hesitation.
“Are you making new friends?” I asked. More hesitation.
“So what’s going on?” I asked. It’s one of those questions you already know the answer to but you know they need to tell you anyway.
“I’m not sure if I can say it in English,” he said. Emotions are complex, even in your first language.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I think I understand.”
“You miss it here but you can feel everyone moving on without you, so even though you come back, it’s not really the same.”
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s about it.”
“I know that feeling pretty well, too,” I said. “I kind of have it right now.”
He looked at me curiously – as if the idea of adults having feelings was totally foreign to him.
“Well, I have to go back to America in the summer and I don’t know if I’ll ever be coming back,” I said. “It’s hard to leave a place you love and feel like you belong.” He nodded again. This time I knew he understood what I was saying.
I went back to my office and he, I assume, rejoined his friends when they finally made it back to their own classroom.
Sometimes we find ourselves in dark hallways sharing our hearts with unexpected people. I think that’s partly because we always underestimate how much humans have in common with each other until we stop and listen, and partly because dark corners are more common than most of us assume.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the clutches of devils that make us wrestle and fight to get back to the safety of the classroom and no one will bat an eyelash because, what’s not normal about that? No, what’s not normal about struggle? What’s not normal about that on-going battle between our sin natures and the renewing of our hearts through the Lord? We fight impatience and doubt, discontentment and distrust. We wrestle and squirm and struggle. Welcome to the life of the Christian soldier.
I think it’s important to remember a few things.
1. Moving on or away may be hard, but God’s plan is always, always better and more beautiful than ours. And when we cling to what is slipping away, we find ourselves both without what we had and without what God is giving to us – we’re just alone in a dark hallway, refusing to move on.
2. The struggle with our flesh will not end until we draw our last breath. When we’re tired and ready to give up, we need to turn to the Lord and his Word to renew our strength and continue the battle. Always, always fight your way back to the classroom.