Easter in the Czech Republic
Adjusting pagan Easter traditions for a modern Czech Easter
Explaining Easter traditions in the Czech Republic to non-Czechs like myself often stirs up controversy. Why do Czechs celebrate Easter on the Monday after Easter Sunday? Do Czech men and boys really go door-to-door brandishing whips made from braided pussy-willow branches? Why are Czech women expected to reward men after receiving a whipping with ribbons, hand-decorated eggs, chocolates and shots of liquor? Along with learning an Easter poem to recite, do Czech boys also learn to make whips in their preschool? How have these pagan customs remained a part of a modern 21st century Czech Easter celebration?
If you have ever read about Czech Easter rituals, you’ll know that the pagan rituals associated with Czech Easter like the pomlázka (whip) are not ones that non-Czechs can easily embrace. After living here for many years, I know that many Czechs, my husband included, do not embrace all of these traditions either. Yet, the tradition of the pomlázka and the koledování (neighborhood caroling) that accompany it, are still widely practiced throughout the country on Easter Monday.
According to pagan custom, good health, beauty and fertility are assured in the upcoming year to women who are whipped. More modern tradition holds that the bearer of the “beating” comes equipped with an Easter chant, which can include the following lines, “Give us dyed eggs. If you don’t give dyed, give at least white. The hen will lay a new one for you.” Nowadays, the whippings are carried out more symbolically than literally, at least in homes where women have input. From noon on, originally, the women and girls anointed the men with perfumed oil, but in modern times the oil treatment has more often than not been replaced with buckets of ice cold water.
Although I have negative feelings about whipping and the gendered traditions tied to Czech Easter, there are other aspects of Czech Easter traditions which I enjoy: local Easter markets with their focus on handicrafts and traditional Easter sweets (handpainted eggs, braided willow baskets, mazanec, a sweet Easter bread, and Easter gingerbread cookies); the official welcoming of spring by throwing Mořena, an effigy of winter, into the river; and the practice of readying gardens for a revival of outdoor life after a long winter.
Easter preparations involving food can range from a simple dish of new potatoes served with dill sauce to heavier lamb or rabbit meals with spinach and dumplings. We’ve tried our hand with cooking rabbit and spinach as well as making dill sauce, but when we visit my in-laws we are served an Easter holiday meal of potato salad and schnitzel.
Preparing Easter handicrafts is a regular activity in Czech elementary art classes. Although my children have never braided a whip in their schools, each spring they are asked to bring in at least two eggs with their insides “blown-out” to prepare the traditional kraslice (decorated eggs) which are then used to decorate the house or given to visitors on Easter Monday. Unlike in the US, where Easter eggs are often associated with brightly-colored vinegar dyes and stickers, Czech Easter eggs are intricate works of art. Even preschoolers use a variety of methods, including painting, rolling the egg in multi-colored pots of sugar/sand and stenciling different spring designs. Over the years, my children have also made baskets filled with spring grass, ceramic lambs and Easter prints.
At Easter markets in town squares and castle courtyards, kiosks sell kraslice, along with mulled wine, mead, freshly-made sugar wafers and iced gingerbread cookies. During my first Easter in Prague, I remember seeing two fragile grandmotherly-types, dressed in traditional clothes, white embroidered smocks and floor-length blue skirts with bonnets pulled tight over their white hair. Hunched on stools, they decorated eggs while they sold them, mostly to non-Czech customers. In recent years, the Old Town Easter market in Prague has gotten more commerical, with sellers other than the artisans and goods that may or may not be handmade. Still, in more rural spots, you’re likely to find artists selling their handmade eggs, whips and other Easter handicrafts. The pomlázka tradition also seems more popular in village neighborhoods. When we lived in Prague, we never had carolers on Easter Monday, though in our regular visits to my husband’s family and in our current village neighborhood, my children have experienced the tradition first-hand.
Each year as part of my family’s Easter tradition, my children buy one new Easter egg from a market for our family’s Easter tree. Like our neighbors, our Easter tree is made from forsythia or other blooming branches in the garden. We also buy new eggs for my mother each year, since the Czech eggs are a highlight of her Easter decorations. When my Czech neighbors enter my house around Easter time, they remark on the beautiful eggs I’ve got displayed on my Easter tree. When I confess that I didn’t make any of them, except for the ones the children have brought home from school, the conversation stops.
For the Czech culture, decorating Easter eggs is a family tradition, and often a matter of cultural pride. Why would Czech women buy decorated eggs at an Easter market when they can do it themselves at home? When I talked with my students, both boys and girls, they told me that one of their favorite pre-Easter activities is decorating eggs, usually with their grandmothers. When I pressed them for tips on techniques or styles, they confessed that they did it differently each year. Sometimes they boiled eggs in onion peels wrapped in sheer stockings, other times they used spinach or beets to dye the eggs after marking them first with wax crayons, and other times they painted directly on the eggs.
In previous years, I used to scour the supermarkets for white eggs to decorate, since in my mind, they were the most suitable for dying. However, once I discovered that the children’s methods were by no means limited to dyes, we realized that the normal brown eggs had firmer shells and held up better during the blowing out process. In our house, although we have all tried our hand at egg-blowing, Radek has remained the master, due to his low-breakage rate. Perhaps this wouldn’t be a traditional man’s role in the Czech Easter preparation, but for our family, it works.
Even though the chick and the lamb are Czech symbols of Easter, the Velikonoční zajíček (Easter rabbit) also has a behind-the-signs role in some Czech families’ Easter celebrations, although he doesn’t bring any eggs. “When I was a child, my parents hid a basket in our garden filled with treats and a new piece of clothing. They told me that the Easter rabbit had left it for me,” one mother told me. Today she follows the tradition with her own children.
Many of my students spend the Easter holiday weekend in their summer chata or chalupa (cottage). Washing windows, airing bedding out and pruning the garden are all part of getting the cottage ready for spring. Perhaps it’s also a way to skip the pagan traditions.
Typically Czech castles reopen for their spring season around the time of Easter. Most offer Easter markets, medival reinactments with knights and horses and special crafts activities for families and children. This year, two weeks before Easter, my family visited the nearby hunting castle Křivoklát on its inaugural spring weekend, hoping to catch an Easter market and tour the castle. Although the markets weren’t yet open, we did visit a weaver’s shop where they were selling individual willow branches to make a pomlázka or an Easter basket. We ate below the castle in U Jelena, a restaurant decorated with animal heads and reknowned for its game dishes, but skipped the 80-minute castle tour and opted for a walk in the nearby woods. We saw other families with children doing the same thing. We may return to Křivoklát on Easter weekend to see the knights and markets, although the children are pushing for an Easter egg hunt in the garden.
For my “half 'n half” family, Easter is a holiday that we celebrate, or try to, by incorporating elements of both traditional Czech and American Easter celebrations. As an adult Radek has never used the pomlázka, but each year we do visit his mother, aunt and grandmother who expect the children to carol, whip in hand, for their Easter treats. This year, we plan to spend the morning of Easter Monday with my husband’s family, but it’s also likely that Monday afternoon will find us back at home preparing our garden for spring, while the children hide eggs and eat Easter sweets.
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