Lessons from Christmas Carp

By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

As we are working our way through the Advent season and getting ready for Christmas, our lives are filled with festivities, yearly chores and eager anticipation of activities which may include decorating a Christmas tree, listening to carols, watching Christmas movies, baking cookies, buying presents and getting ourselves into the holiday mood. But, for me, growing up in the Czech Republic, one essential Christmas tradition was all about the Christmas carp. Yes, the bottom-feeding creature that, in my part of the world, has been elevated from the humble fish family to a status of freshwater rockstar, raised in the carp farms of South Bohemia. (A little history lesson: supposedly the tradition of the Christmas carp dates back to 1253 and the missionary activity of Vilem of Rubruk. The popularity of carp is credited to lakes being built outside of Catholic monasteries during the Middle Ages to supply fish for the Catholic tradition of fasting from eating meat on certain days.).

So, you are likely wondering, how does a carp make it from a lake to your plate? It is an arduous and emotional journey for all. A few days before Christmas we would venture out to the city market with our crocheted bags and choose two or three fish for our family. Then, we would quickly walk home and release our new family members into our bathtub (keep in mind that the majority of families had only one bathtub in their homes). Honestly, I have a convenient amnesia regarding the lack of national showering for a few days as the entire country was renting out their bathtubs to these sweet freshwater creatures.

On Christmas Eve my dad would quietly disappear (to spare us from a traumatizing farewell to our new fish friend) and would take on the unpleasant task assigned to the man of the house: putting an end to the poor carp’s life. The next we saw of our recent bathtub visitor was as fillets of fish doused in milk marinade. My favorite responsibility was breading the fish, frying it, and serving it with a slice of lemon and potato salad during Christmas dinner. As I approach the Christmas season, I am reminded that of some of the most valuable lessons I learned from my beloved carp.

Lesson number 1: Sometimes it is okay to miss out on experiences. Now and then we need to give ourselves permission to sit out and be spared from certain events. Although I used to be curious about the actual “farewell” as my dad would club the carp, I realized that my fish was much tastier without the accompanying visual images of the fish’s ultimate fate. Sometimes there are events in our life that, despite our curiosity, are better left not experienced directly. We may, in fact, benefit from leaving some experiences unlived. Living our lives with intentionality means that we are guided by the questions: What am I trying to accomplish here? What is the purpose? If we are mindlessly wandering or rushing through life, we run the risk of missing the big picture, the bigger lesson, the meaning behind our experiences. Life is not about collecting or accumulating a multitude of experiences, but rather about living selectively and processing life with clear intention and purpose in mind.

Lesson number 2: Don’t take more than you can handle. Every year I would learn this lesson over and over again. My eyes would get big as I salivated over my piece of carp, but what I would often not remember is that carp is super bony and even the smallest piece takes forever to dissect and eat. Of course, this becomes a real issue for children who cannot open their first gift on Christmas Eve until all their fish is gone. Similarly, in life, we are prone to quickly commit to activities, events, and obligations only to later realize that we have overloaded and overextended ourselves. We are then left to feel like we are headed down a one-way street towards a brick wall. An event that seemed like so much fun all of a sudden turns into a burden and something to endure instead of something to enjoy. Especially during the holiday season, prioritize, prioritize, prioritize and then decide to do one less thing. Then thoroughly enjoy that one less holiday party, one less batch of cookies to bake, one less gift to make the season of celebration. Christmas season is something to be enjoyed, not something to check off our to-do list.

Lesson number 3: Taking shortcuts rarely works out. What do ER doctors do on Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic? Mini surgeries with their special tweezers as they are removing pesky carp bones lodged in the throats of folks who were trying to take the shortcut by consuming undissected bites, not taking the time to analyze each bite to deem it safe for chewing, swallowing and digesting. We can all relate to the little temptation to do something boring quickly so that we can move to the next, more enjoyable part, but that strategy of time management rarely works. Most of the time we pay for it in lost time, sometimes lost money, and often with our nerves bubbling over. Deep down inside we had a feeling that it was not a good idea to cut corners but we did it anyway, just to pay for it later. There is a false promise in shortcuts, making us believe that the process is unimportant and that reaching the end product quickly is paramount. Based on our experiences, we all know that often the course towards something can be just as enjoyable, enlightening and joy-filled as the final result.

So as we walk (yes, walk, don’t run) through this holiday season, let’s embrace each Christmas moment and experience as one of a kind because, in fact, that is what it really is. Each Christmas holiday will represent an amalgamation of the season of life in which we find ourselves, impacted by our current circumstances and the people with whom we are now close. Trying to replicate the Christmas magic of our childhood or years past will only leave us feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. Putting expectations on ourselves or others will make us vulnerable to feelings of frustration and emptiness. As we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas, let us always remember the reason for the season. Veselé Vánoce a šťastný nový rok!

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