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.

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