October. Fall is in the air. Dark, puffy clouds break the early morning’s golden light as the sun rises above the flat roofs of Prague’s suburban blocks. The light almost feels tangible as it hits the morning fog. Everything always becomes so visible in this season. Right in front of me, clouds of steam rise from the outlet of a small ice hockey arena. Behind it, an opening in the fog reveals how the green hill separating us from the busier parts of Prague 6 has turned into a colorful bouquet of individual trees. As always, I am the only person to be found on one of the countless small balconies I can see down the street. This is true for all the seasons, but on this fall morning I particularly enjoy my balcony privacy. I feel like an outside observer of time, while everyone else is just part of that flow, quietly subjected to it.
Nothing is less true, of course. Allowing myself to generalize, the Czech Republic is a country of traditions and many of them have something to do with the weather, nature, and seasonal changes. People seem to take the seasons quite seriously, experiencing them fully. Only a few weeks ago, the local park was still filled with senior couples sunbathing in tight swimwear on little towels or plastic folding chairs, casually enjoying their half liters of pilsner – occasionally something stronger – negligent of any social distancing recommendations. That season is now over. These local epicureans have swiftly been replaced by children wearing hats and mittens, collecting chestnuts and leaves. It’s like living in a modern Josef Lada depiction of seasons.
The beauty of autumn is well-reflected in Czech society. The language alone reveals some of the season’s most magical characteristics. The Czech word for October is říjen, which refers to rutting stags, while November, or listopad, refers to the falling of leaves. Prosinec, December, comes from the Proto-Slavic word prosinoti, or shining through, referring to the fact that the sun only occasionally finds its way through the clouds at this time of the year. And although Czechs may think about the etymology of these names as often as we think of October, November and December being the 8th, 9th and 10th months of the Roman year, I think there’s a certain beauty to the casual use of these poetic concepts.
Romantic as these names may be, their description of nature’s descent into cold and darkness leaves me somewhat melancholic. As if to compensate for the drama, Czechs welcome the arrival of winter with a series of colorful traditions. Paper lantern parades have been an autumn tradition for centuries. They have been organized for different reasons, following the various and divergent stages of the country’s political development. Originally celebrating wedding anniversaries of the imperial couple Franz Joseph I and Elisabeth, lanterns have later been lit to celebrate the birthday of the Czechoslovak Republic, and eventually even to commemorate the Great October Socialist Revolution. Even though this final usage nearly killed the country’s enthusiasm for these colorful parades, the tradition is gaining in popularity again nowadays, mostly just because it’s fun.
While Prague’s urban environment brings the seasons to life in its own beautiful way, I think the best place to enjoy fall is the countryside. The Czech Republic has a strong agricultural history and autumn is therefore considered as a celebration of the summer’s heavy work coming to an end. Flying kites is one of the most colorful expressions of this tradition. Although kites can be purchased in all sorts of shapes and colors from little stalls by provincial roads, many Czech families still make their own. Historically, children used to work on the fields all summer and play time only started in fall. This seasonal association with kites still exists, and thanks to the arrival of autumn’s cold winds, the skies above Czech fields turn multicolor year after year.
Saving the best for last, Czech autumn is the season of festivals and wine. And although this year it may be impossible to celebrate the new harvest en masse, wine-tasting is a perfect activity to indulge while social distancing. It all starts with the arrival of Saint Wenceslas, patron of winemakers and brewers, on September 28, and culminates when the first new wine is opened on Saint Martin’s Day, November 11. Back in the 18th century, vineyard owners visited their winemakers around this time to taste the result of the latest harvest, carefully deciding who’s contracts would be extended by another year. Nowadays, everyone enjoys the fresh and fruity young wine – often accompanied by roast goose with sauerkraut: a tradition that makes my vegetarian heart cringe. Legend has it that some unfortunate geese noisily interrupted St. Martin during prayer, a mistake for which their descendants still pay with their lives. Disproportionate, if you ask me. Nevertheless, the wines are great and especially well-enjoyed while looking over South Moravia’s rolling hills.
I would love to welcome my friends from abroad during this joyful season, but due to the current circumstances, it’ll have to wait another year. I’d say that the best way to enjoy the beauty of Czech fall at home, wherever your home is, would be to try and get a nice Moravian wine, perhaps with some roasted chestnuts, niva and hermelin on the side.