Easter Monday: To whip or not?
Why Czechs are ditching their whips to head to the cottage, walk in nature or visit castles instead
For Czechs, as in many nations around the world, Easter brings with it a wealth of traditions and customs which have little to do with the religious aspects of the Christian holiday, but are rooted in pagan rituals welcoming spring’s arrival. Until last year when Good Friday became an official Czech holiday, Velikonoční pondělí (Easter Monday) was the only state holiday associated with Easter in the country.
Traditional Easter in the Czech Republic
When I asked some friends what Czech Easter means to them, one friend related the following story as told to him: “When my friend moved to Prague years ago from the US, he arrived during the week of Easter. In the taxi from the airport, he asked the driver what Czechs do to celebrate. The taxi driver said, ‘The men hit the women with the sticks, and the women give the men the eggs.’ My friend thought to himself, ‘What have I just done?’”
Although the taxi driver’s explanation doesn’t begin to explain the array of festivities accompanying the Easter holiday in the Czech Republic, in truth, he summed up what is most unusual about the Czech Easter tradition, particularly to outsiders. In a recent Woman’s Day article, “10 Easter Traditions from around the World,” the Czech Republic and Slovakia made it to the top ten with their whipping tradition, along with an explanation for the legend behind it.
Even if it’s not the way that many Czechs celebrate today, the pomlázka, a homemade whip braided from willow branches and decorated with colorful ribbons, has been for centuries one of the most recognizable symbols of the Czech Easter celebration. Along with kraslice, hand-painted eggs decorated with intricate designs, both symbols belong to the tradition of koledovani (caroling) which occurs during the secular celebration of Easter Monday in the Czech Republic, particularly in villages and small towns across the country.
According to pagan tradition, the willow whip was used to symbolically give women the fertility and health they’d need in the coming year. Men and boys braided willow branches to make the whip because the blooming willows were the first sign of spring’s arrival. As one male Czech friend eloquently explained, “We whip you, so you don’t dry out.” In return for the blessings of vitality and fertility, Czech women give kraslice (derived from the word, krásný, or beautiful) to their visitors. In the past, giving a specially decorated egg to a certain boy could be the beginning of a romance.
The traditional kraslice were real eggs with their insides blown out, so that they could be kept as keepsakes and displayed as decorations for years to come. Popular dying methods including using vegetables such as onions skins, beet root or sauerkraut. The designs were etched on with wax or reed or punched out with special tools before the eggs were dyed. Decorating the eggs was a matter of skill and craftsmanship with particular techniques and methods passed down by Czech mothers and grandmothers to their daughters over generations of sitting at the kitchen table together.
Today, if you visit a historic Czech or Slovak skansen (open air museum) you can see egg preparation in the traditional way. Czech school children learn to make kraslice in school, decorating them with oat flakes, sugar, poppy seeds and other natural ingredients. To see artisanal Czech Easter eggs, head to the Easter Egg exhibition at the National Agricultural Museum in Prague.
Caroling is a bit like trick-or-treating, except that only boys and men perform the door-to-door visits while girls, their mothers and grandmothers stay at home to receive the visitors. Upon arriving at a house, tradition dictates that a boy recite an Easter koleda (poem), usually rhyming. Afterward, he is welcomed into the house and invited for a visit.
During the days leading up to Easter Monday, Czech women prepare the best of their hospitality, including gifts of decorated eggs, chocolates, liquor (for men), Easter sweets, small open-faced sandwiches and an Easter mazanec (Easter sweet bread with raisins and nuts). Visits are considered by the older generation of Czech women to be a sign of respect and appreciation – i.e. the more visits, the more well-respected you are in the community. It’s akin to the “How many different types of Christmas sweets do you bake?” mentality that is also prevalent among Czechs from my mother-in-law’s generation.
Despite my initial apprehension, upon speaking to Czechs from the older generation, they assured me that it was an honor to have many men coming to pay their Easter respects, whips and all. My husband’s grandmother did tell me that it was better to put a pillow under my dress, though, just in case. When I asked my Czech contemporaries, however, they told stories from their youth of being scared of their fathers’ friends and hiding in the attic to escape the switching.
Opinions among Czechs are varied on whether young girls are allowed to join the caroling. I know some friends who let their daughters go caroling with groups of children in the village, so they can enjoy the fun too, while others send only sons. Regardless of gender, children usually receive koleda (which also means Easter sweets) from their grandparents or other family members. In the eyes of a Czech child, Easter Monday is a holiday, perhaps second only to the St. Nicholas tradition, in terms of the quantity of chocolate consumed.
For boys or men who arrived later than noon for a visit, girls and women are armed with pitchers of cold water to pour over their heads (usually from the safety of a first story window).
A modern Czech Easter: Family time, spring cleaning and a visit to the cottage or a castle
Lest you think, as my friend’s friend once did, that Easter Monday gives Czech men the freedom to run around and beat Czech women and their daughters and then stuff themselves with Easter delicacies and alcohol, it is important to note, that the Czech Easter customs originally took place in a different time and culture.
In modern days, Czech Easter is celebrated in a variety of ways with the role of the pomlázka and kraslice being retained more as symbols of the country’s culture and as examples of Czech handicrafts. The focus of Czech Easter today often centers on the family and enjoying the arrival of spring.
Airing out the cottage & preparing the garden
For Czechs who own a family chata (cottages which are often shared between multiple generations of a family), Easter is the prime time to head out of the city to pay the first visit of the new year to the cottage, bring food and supplies for the coming warm-weather season and air out the space. Cottages are usually located close to nature in villages and rural areas. Going to the cottage often means roughing it as some are not heated, do not have running water or other comforts of home. Families may spend the entire long weekend at the cottage working in the garden or taking day trips to nearby nature sites or castles, while others may join other relatives at a family cottage only for a meal. During the Easter weekend, some families hide Easter baskets with chocolate in cottage gardens for children to find. There is no Czech Easter bunny; however, the rabbit is known as a symbol of fertility and chocolates shaped in the form of rabbits are popular.
Visiting a castle for opening season
If they aren’t heading to the cottage (or even if they are), many Czechs use the Easter weekend as an opportunity to visit a castle opening weekend which coincides with the arrival of spring. Castles around the country open their doors to visitors for the first time around April 1, usually with special parades, exhibitions and Easter markets. Easter markets are similar to Christmas markets, with the exception of the pomlázka, kraslice and Easter mazanec which are on sale. This year, several castles in the Prague vicinity will be open for the Easter weekend, including Křivoklát.
Prague’s Easter Markets (Old Town Square, Wenceslas Square, Namesti Miru)
Prague’s Easter Markets are a colorful display of the handicraft work and food delicacies associated with Czech Easter. If you’re looking for hand painted Easter eggs, iced and decorated gingerbread cookies, or simply want to feel the Czech Easter atmosphere, spend an hour or two strolling through the markets, seeing the iron and metal exhibitions, listening to choral groups or watching Moravian folk dancing. At the Old Town Square market, there is even a special crafts corner where you can paint your own egg, braid a whip or a basket or try your hand at metal work.
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