My first contact with the traditional Czech Christmas took place quite early, during the last weekend of November. It was not the opening of the typical Christmas market that you can find in every main square in every city, town or village in Czech Republic but a special and traditional Christmas fair in Toulcův Dvůr, a Centre for Environmental Education in the surroundings of Prague.
When you are already inside the complex, the first question that comes to your mind is, Am I really in Prague? Different habitats -forest, meadows, wetlands and orchards- shape approximately 8.5 hectares of natural grounds. A gratifying piece of nature within the city. Because in the end, if you look at the horizon, the Paneláks are still there, defiant, looking more grey than ever although they are not grey anymore, as if they were the first line of the enemy’s army of a never-ending war. The silent war between “progress” and nature, between the city and the countryside…
But today, in the other “army” is a day of celebration. Toulcův Dvůr is welcoming Mikuláš (St. Nicholas), so it is a good opportunity for everybody to visit the place, know their values and of course, get more in touch with Czech traditions. My guide through this special natural “rear” in the city is Jess, an EVS from Cambridge, England. She is 24 years old and works in Youth and Environment Europe, one of the NGOs that are established in the landmarks of Toulcův Dvůr. The aim of her organization is to promote environmental protection and raise awareness among young people. Actually, it is a network with more than 40 member organizations in 25 different countries. Through several platforms –youth exchanges, international trainings, youth in action programs, online networks…- young people from different places and organisations can share their ideas, collaborate together and communicate in a daily basis.
For example, Jess is now in charge of The Right to Bee, an awareness campaign to support the survival of bees. She set up and promoted an online place where everybody could add their ideas for workshops. Then, the campaign team voted for the five best ones, which will be realized during next spring with the help of some interactive step-by-step guides created by her.
Since she was 17, Jess has been passionate about two different topics that have been in her life together since then: Environmental protection and Eastern Europe. Before coming here, she was working in different NGOs and environmental campaigns in Armenia and Ukraine, and also travelling all around the continent. Now she is writing a blog (tygerbeat.wordpress.com) where she collects the news about environmental needs in Eastern and central Europe. “Western Media is not interested at all, if they are writing about these countries is only about economics or corruption. But I am, so I try really hard to find these stories and if I find something which I can support in the future, I will definitely do…”.
Jess talks really enthusiastically about all her work and her aspirations. She is the kind person you can trust to work with, always ready to start something, always motivated, with a smile in her face. She is talking with me while we are visiting the Christmas festival and the fields of Toulcův Dvůr – the horses, the farm, the wooden structures where children play and learn, the bees, the fire, the offices, the permaculture garden, the kindergarten, the nature itself… -.
It is indeed a really cold day but we stay outside most of the time, as well as all the Czech families that have come to celebrate Saint Nicholas Day. It is not 5th of December but, as we are at the weekend, Mikuláš has come early this year at Toulcův Dvůr. To warm up ourselves a little bit, we decided to try some Svařák (hot wine typical from Czech Republic) and eat a Bramboračka. Soon, the children will run into the angels, devils or Mikuláš. He looks a little bit like Santa Claus –nice old man, big white bear…- but more religious – he wears a red cape with golden motifs and a classic tall walking stick. The origin of Santa Claus was indeed inspired by St. Nicholas. If the children were good this year, they will be rewarded with sweets, if not, they can be put into the Devil´s sack and be taken to hell…
But before that, all of them have the opportunity to show their skills to their parents. In the outside stage, different groups of them sing typical Czech songs, perform a play about nativity, or show old Czech dances. There are also some folk bands and a lot of stands where you can buy typical Christmas and craft products, homemade dolls, old Czech food, drinks…
Most of the children come from the Kindergarten Semínko (Seed), also located inside Toulcův Dvůr. They believe in the need for children to have daily contact with nature, ensuring their healthy and harmonious development and enriching the lessons by the fact that they are there, looking, touching, smelling and feeling all they learn. They spend as much time as possible outside, no matter the weather conditions as long as the children can adapt to them… The learning, therefore, is something real in all senses, not only something that they have to believe it is real.
In the different classes and programs they have there are not only qualified teachers but also foreigners assistants. Penélope, an EVS from Málaga, Spain, arrived here last winter, when a thin layer of snow covered the whole area. She has been working with the children since then, overcoming the barriers of language. For me, it is still amazing to see how easy is for them to have a good relation with the children, to communicate with them, to understand and help all of them in different situations. In the end what counts more is the affection, the empathy, the motivation, the gestures…
Penélope is one of the most cheerful people I have met. During the mid-term, we had the opportunity to see how she teaches flamenco to the children with a really nice short story to make all the movements. Today, we also met her during the festival. She is not the only one who works in Semínko. Three more Spanish girls are currently working there, with EVS or Erasmus programs, and Jess also helped them once a week.
The night was coming but we kept looking at some performances with the help of more Svařák. We wanted to stay until the end, not to see Mikuláš, as all the children, but one of the devils. The reason was that we knew him very well. And not because we have behaved badly during this year but because he is also an EVS… Today, Txus, a 25-year-old guy from Madrid, Spain, is dressed up as a devil to frighten all the bad children in Toulcův Dvůr. He also works in Youth and Environment Europe and helps with the horses and in other events which take place in Toulcův Dvůr as well.
One of the projects he has been in charge of since the beginning is the urban gardening for small spaces. Every moment is a good moment to make people aware of the many benefits of it (for the environment, for the human health, for food conservation, for economic and sustainable development, etc.). In the mid-term, for instance, the other EVS could share their ideas and learn more about it.
Txus has been always involved in social movements fighting for social justice and equality in Spain, a country which everyday lacks more and more of it. He has a really outgoing personality and he seems to have the things clear. For him, the war is waging everyday. A very difficult war, as many people are still not aware of it. But as an old African proverb says, “Many small people, who in many small places, do many small things, can alter the face of the world”.