In September of 1975 I came to the United States as an immigrant with big dreams but empty pockets; most of us did, and I think most newcomers still do. Czechoslovakia at that time was a communist country, and the best you could hope for was to escape through another nation, carrying only a small suitcase so as not to draw attention from officials. I had to risk my life, and everything, really…Worst of all, I had to chance never seeing my family again.
In my Czech homeland, Christmas was always my favorite time. Christmas was all about our family and traditions, the smell of my mother’s Christmas cookies, and the tree, under which was the nativity scene our family kept for generations. I was expecting my first child a few months after my first Christmas in the USA, and I dearly missed and tried to replicate that old warm atmosphere for my new family in my new home for all our years to come.
My first job in The States didn’t pay much, just enough to get us through from day to day. Recreating Christmas traditions I knew from home was difficult, but I was determined to do my best, so I decided to craft a ceramic nativity set. I invested a little money in a small kiln, a bag of clay and some glazes. Then I made a few sketches and I started my new project.
I created nativity scenes, Christmas ornaments, decorations for my two kids’ nursery walls, murals, garden sculptures and everything else I couldn’t afford but I could create. To provide better for my children, I interrupted my ceramic endeavors and worked for 25 exciting years in electronics in The Bay Area. When I retired a few years ago, I came back to ceramics. My nativity scenes always have been people’s favorites and they’re fun to create.
I draw my inspiration from sketches by the 19th century Czech painter, Mikolas Ales. He was a very poor child and couldn’t afford a nativity set, so he drew one. As he always would, he found inspiration for his characters in his own village.
Czech legend has it that when Jesus Christ was born, not only the three wise men came to greet him and bring him gifts, but common villagers also grabbed the best things they possessed and rushed to bring them to the Christ Child. The gifts they carried reflected their occupation and social standing: the Magi and their gifts; then the shepherd with his sheep; farmers bringing apples, baskets of eggs, jars of milk, a goose; the butcher bringing pigs; the baker bringing bread; and others with their various goods to honor and to bestow upon the little Baby Jesus.
This has not only religious significance; it also conveys a powerful message to share and be kind to each other, especially now. I hope that portraying common folk in my nativities reminds us all of this and promotes this spirit.
Thanks to my beloved United States, the Czech Republic is free again, and I was able to reunite with my family, but my heart and my home are here now. I dreamed of America seemingly forever and I have been a proud US citizen for over 35 years now, and, while it may be true that Czechs might be the least religious people on earth, they and I do hold these traditions sacred, and I find great pleasure in crafting my little nativity scenes and sharing the joy they seem to bring to others.