A communist Christmas tale

Their eyes frozen in the framed pictures were peering at me constantly whenever I slept in that room in my hometown, Prague. The Stalin and the Jesus pictures hung on the wall in my grandmother's house where my great-grandmother also lived.

When I asked my grandma who the guy with the moustache and the pipe was she frowned at me saying: “Don’t call him a guy. He is our savior.” For her, Stalin was like god.

This conversation happened at the beginning of 80s when I was eight years old or so. By then, the Kremlin itself had already undermined Stalin’s cult but my grandma was forever grateful to Stalin. She believed he defeated Nazism and laid the foundation of communism and tirelessly promoted this system as the best the humankind had ever come up with.

At another time, I asked the same question about the second picture in the room. Who is this guy with the crown of thorns in his hair? This time it was my great-grandmother who rebuked me. “Poor boy, this is Jesus Christ,” she lamented. The only harmonious kingdom was the one above us, she preached. And with her mischievous smile she added: “By the way, that Stalin will be saved by Him, too.”

I didn’t know anything about either figure. I used to call my grandma “Little Heart” and my great-grandma “Little Angel.” My loving feelings for them were much more important than anything else.

I lived under the wings of these two women in the small, cozy world of theirs, full of fairy-tales, candies and hugs. When they read me bedtime stories by the oil lamp, I savored their warm-looking faces. During this nightly ritual, they ceased their battle to win my mind.

Those two “guys” hanging on the wall created tension in the house that, even as a little boy, I could detect. To this day I’m still baffled that Stalin and Jesus shared that wall. How did my grandmother and her mother both agree on this arrangement, I wonder? Communists were destroying everything religious, saying it was a poison.

My great-grandmother once took me to a run-down church in the countryside to show me what Stalin and his henchmen had done to practically destroy a special place where she had gone to pray to Jesus. “Bad people,” I reportedly said to my great-grand mother’s satisfaction.

My grandma countered. She told me how the Church had converted American Indians — exciting people in my boyhood imagination — to Christianity through violence. “Bad people,” I uttered to please my grandma too.

I didn't know who I wanted to dislike more: Stalin or Jesus! On the other hand, Jesus was the symbol of Christmas, the best time of the year.

The Christmas Season was like a never-ending bedtime story. It was truly a harmonious time in Czechoslovakian society back then. Communists, despite all their anti-religion rhetoric, liked Christmas and let people even talk about the Christ Child during the holidays.

They struggled to explain why they kept Christmas on the calendar, though. Sometimes they tried to retell the history in rather bizarre ways. One time, many years after the Velvet Revolution when the Czech people freed themselves from communism, I listened to a 1952 recording of a Christmas speech given by then president of Czechoslovakia, Antonin Zapotocky.

This somehow became a YouTube hit in my country in recent years. Zapotocky, the second communist leader of socialistic Czechoslovakia, spoke over the radio that year about the “historic alteration” of the Jesus story, twisting his rhetoric into a pretzel as he tried to link Jesus and Communism:

“As the Christ Child got older, his hair got gray, his beard grew transformed into a Russian Santa Claus,” the president said. Then he added that the now grown-up Christ Child, aka Santa Claus, was coming to Czechoslovakia and other socialistic countries from the East, in other words, from the Soviet Union. “On his way, he is also greeted by a star. But it’s not the Bethlehem one. No, he is welcomed by thousands and thousands of red, five-pointed stars glowing on our factories, mines and steel mills.”

The line between communism and religion continues to get blurred in our times.

Recently, in Venezuela, President Nicholás Maduro felt free to change the date of the Christmas season for his own political purposes. Make Christmas in November, he declared!

A couple of years ago, I was reporting on Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chávez’s presidential reelection bid in Venezuela. First, it struck me when Chávez, who had pledged to transform his country into a new Communist state, said that Jesus Christ was the first socialist in the history of the world.

If Chávez were right, my grannies could end their tug-of-war, I thought cynically. And then, the revolutionary leader broadcast his own version of Christmas, which echoed the tone of Zapotocky's address back in the ’50s. He urged Venezuelan parents to read heroic tales about Simon Bolivar, the 19th century warrior for independence from Spain, at Christmas time. According to Chávez, who portrayed Bolivar as a socialist, too, this family activity would be in the best Christmas tradition.

Today, Simon Bolivar’s pictures are all around Caracas alongside those of Chávez. Once while in Caracas, I came across Bolivar’s and Chávez’s portraits hung side-by-side. This transported me back to my childhood and memories of the Stalin and Jesus pictures.

But, despite the power of these images, they were quickly pushed away by the faces of Little Heart and Little Angel lit by the oil lamp, nurturing their young grandson with their love, a far more powerful human force than ideology or religion.

Eduard Freisler is a Czech journalist who lives in New York.

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

Tony Lesesne


    Tony Lesesne: Overkill, and an apology

    Yes, it happens in South Florida, too — and it shouldn’t. Black men pulled over, needlessly hassled by police officers who give the rest of their colleagues a bad name, who make no distinction when a suspect has no other description than ‘black male,’ who harass residents because they can. A North Miami Beach officer pulls over a black man in a suit and tie — and behind the wheel of an Audi that simply had to be stolen, right? In another Miami-Dade city, an officer demands that an African-American man installing a vegetable garden justify why he has a shovel and seedlings. Detained for possession of cilantro? Here are five South Floridians who tell of their experiences in this community and beyond, years ago, and all too recently.

Delrish Moss


    Delrish Moss: Out after dark

    “I was walking up Seventh Avenue, just shy of 14th street. I was about 17 and going home from my job. I worked at Biscayne Federal Bank after school. The bank had a kitchen, and I washed the dishes. A police officer gets out of his car. He didn’t say anything. He came up and pushed me against a wall, frisked me, then asked what I was doing walking over here after dark. Then he got into his car and left. I never got a chance to respond. I remember standing there feeling like my dignity had been taken with no explanation. I would have felt better about that incident had I gotten some sort of dialogue. I had not had any encounters with police.


    Bill Diggs: Hurt officer’s feelings

    “I’m the first generation in my family to go to college, and if I wanted to do nothing else, I wanted to make my mom happy. I was living for my parents, I wanted to be that guy, I wanted to go to work and not have to put on steel-toe boots. And here I am in Atlanta, I have finally grown to a particular level of affluence. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but I was a college kid, wearing a suit, driving a nice BMW going to work everyday. Can’t beat that. I would leave my house, drive up Highway 78, the Stone Mountain area, grab some coffee, go to work. So on this particular morning, there’s a cop who’s rustling up this homeless guy outside the gas station where I was filling up. I’m shaking my head, the cop looks at me. This homeless guy is there every morning. I get in my car and on to the expressway. The police officer comes shooting up behind me. I doing 65, 70. He gets up behind me, I notice he’s following me. I get in one lane, he gets in the lane, I get in another lane, he gets in that lane. He finally flips his lights on, he comes up to the car. I’ve been pulled over for speeding before, I know the drill. Got my hands up here, don’t want to get shot, and I think he’s going to say what I’ve heard before: ‘License and registration, please.’ He says ‘Get out of the car!’ and he reaches in and grabs me by my shirt. He says, ‘So you’re a smart ass, huh?’ Finally he says, ‘License and registration.’ I tell him it’s in the car. He says, ‘Get it for me!’ He goes back to his car, comes back and asks, ‘So where did you get the car from?’ I say ‘It’s a friend of mine’s.” He says, ‘Is it stolen? What are you doing driving your friend’s car?’ I finally asked, ‘Is there a reason you stopped me? You followed me, what’s up, man?’ He says, ‘I’m going to let you go with a warning, but if you see me doing what I’ve got to do for my job, don’t you ever f---ing worry about it.”

Miami Herald

Join the

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category