LaGrange Park Czech expert decks out Christmas tree
John Pritasil at his home in LaGrange Park. Pritasil has been decorating the Czech Republic tree at the Museum of Science and Industry for many years. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 14, 2013 6:06AM
LAGRANGE PARK — John Pritasil enjoys his role as a keeper of Czech culture, especially at Christmas. For 45 years, Pritasil has been decorating a tree representing the eastern European nation’s traditions for the Museum of Science and Industry’s Christmas Around the World exhibit in Chicago. His line includes many immigrants, like his grandmother in the early 1900s, and his father in the 1940s
Q. How did you learn about Czech culture?
A. I grew up in Berwyn speaking Czech at home, and I can read and write it, too. I went to Czech school on Saturday mornings. My grandmother on my mom’s side lived with us, so we always spoke Czech at home. My English skills improved once I started school.
Q. How is the tree at the museum decorated?
A. We do an Old World traditional Czech tree like you would find in someone’s home. This is the first year we used real gingerbread cookies, handmade by a bakery in the Czech Republic, with frosting that looks like a piece of lace on the cookies. It smells wonderful! We start planning in September and decorate the tree provided by the museum in November.
Q. What are Czech traditions with Christmas trees?
A. In talking to my dad, when he was a boy, everything on the tree was always edible, cookies, candy and fruit. Trees were not put up as early as they are here. They didn’t go up till Christmas Eve, when they lit candles on the tree. Almost everything was eaten. There also were a few glass ornaments that were family treasures.
Q. What’s the cultural program like for Christmas Around the World?
A. There’s about 50 of us as volunteers. Some dress in traditional costumes to do the folk dances and sing carols. Others are in a program like a play with a narrator telling about the different traditions in the villages and some of the superstitions involving love and a future spouse.
Q. How has the cultural program at the museum changed since you began coming?
A. I’ve been helping my parents with the tree since I was 4 years old. Years ago, each country had their own day, and we’d do five shows all day long. The cafeteria served Czech food for the day. But now, with 52 countries featured, there’s no way they could do that. Now I think people like to sample a little bit of a lot of different cultures. It’s kind of like a mini UN with all the different countries.
Q. How else do you celebrate your heritage?
A. I’m president of the Czechoslovak American Congress and the Moravian Culture Society, and I sometimes dress as St. Nicholas the bishop with the mitre and staff and make visits. I’m single and celebrate with my brother and his family. Our big day is Christmas Eve, when we have a meatless meal, visit friends, go to church and open presents.