December 24, 2008
It is a statement of the obvious—both trite and troublesome—to acknowledge that most children today generally receive more than they need at Christmas, especially compared to children of times past, and particularly in America. They know the joy of receiving very well—probably too well. It is the gift of giving that is altogether different, as they typically learn as adults. And it is that gift which is the spirit of this season.
Kids a century ago, who did not receive nearly as much in their Christmas stocking, were nonetheless ecstatic on that magical morning. This was a universal truth for children around the world. One such child was a boy named Joseph Pekara, growing up in Czechoslovakia in the 1930s, where the Great Depression was taking its toll.
Joseph’s family had meager means. One toy—any toy—received at anytime, was a thrill. Joseph’s favorite gift was a wheeled, wooden horse given to him by his craftsman father. He cherished it, cradled it, played with it almost every day.
Life got difficult for the citizens of Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, when the Nazis took and terrorized their precious young nation, a rare, glittering jewel of Eastern European democracy between the devastation of the two world wars. Just when it seemed hope was ready to return once the Nazis were defeated in 1945, Comrade Stalin and the communists took over, making many things even worse—particularly Christmas. The communists hated Christianity more than Hitler did, and their assault on Christians included the day Christians mark as the Creation of their faith.
Among the more egregious communist affronts on religion in Czechoslovakia was the state’s notorious anti-religious indoctrination of school children, which was in full swing well into the late 1970s. Karl Marx was hailed as the new messiah. Vaclav Havel, who went to jail in protest of such nonsense, dubbed this unceasing campaign of mendacity “the communist culture of the lie.” It was what Mikhail Gorbachev had in mind when he acknowledged that “atheism took rather savage forms” in the communist world.
As for Joseph Pekara, however, he lived to see better times. He watched communism’s collapse, and lived long enough to import some of his own ideals to America, including a little something to remember fondly this special time of year.
Like the man who made him that prize possession, Joseph likewise grew to make wooden crafts, wanting to harness the joy of his childhood and share it with other children. Ultimately, among his final signature, masterpiece works is an intricate, animated, wood-carved village, 17-feet x 6-feet x 8-feet, with 82 life-like moving figures, that today rests at the Slovak Folk Crafts (www.SlovakFolkCrafts.com) shop in Grove City, Pennsylvania, owned by Anne and Dave Dayton. The remarkable old-time village—a marvel of old-time engineering—depicts folk life as it existed in Western Slovakia for centuries. It was carefully transplanted to Western Pennsylvania in sections, and is believed to be the largest animated woodcarving in the United States. The final section was completed just six weeks before Joseph died in April 2005.
Joseph today lives on in that model, and does so especially at Christmas. That’s because the genesis of the display was Christmas—a crèche. The village was constructed around a rightful centerpiece: a manger scene—an image once verboten in many villages in Joseph’s country during the communist occupation.
But there’s more to the story. Aside from the handsome figurines and carefully carved lines into the basswood, the display is a typical manger scene, with one exception: inserted into the majesty of the moment is a little boy. The boy is barefoot, humble in means and in spirit, on his knees, unworthy. (“Fall on your knees. Oh, hear the angel voices.... Behold your King. Before Him lowly bend.”) His left hand is planted firmly on the ground to brace himself, while his outstretched right arm is fully extended, bearing a priceless gift for the Christ child: a wheeled, wooden horse given to the boy by his craftsman father, a prized possession that he cherished, cradled, played with almost every day.
Like the Christ child, Joseph, a boy of humble origins, would witness persecution in his native land for his faith. In the end, both would persevere only through the hope born that day in a manger.
Joseph Pekara, the boy and the man, expressed the true Spirit of the season; in more ways than one, it was a truly special Christmas gift from one child to another.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).