Sunday, 16 March 2008

Czech Easter traditions

The Czech Republic’s Easter traditions are colourful both in appearance and name.

Green Thursday is so called because of the long green robes worn in church and the spinach and cabbage traditionally eaten on the day. The Thursday before Easter was the day of the last supper, when Christ feasted with the apostles on lamb with bread and wine, labelled Judas as a traitor and began the institution of the Eucharist by pronouncing ‘this is my body’ and ‘this is my blood’.

Green Thursday folk customs include the boys’ game Chasing Judas, and the baking of twisted spiral buns representing serpents, the symbols of betrayal. In some villages there are processions led by a captive Judas in a straw suit which is ceremonially burnt at the end of the day. When sprinkled into a clean jug of water, the ashes of Judas were believed to have special powers including the abilities to guard against fire and protect the health of livestock for the coming year.

Good Friday here is Velký Patek; Great Friday! It’s a serious and sombre affair, not even interrupted by church bells, which are said to have “flown away to Rome” Christians attend church services and take the Eucharist but no music is played and mass is not performed. On the morning of Great Friday, people would wake before dawn and find their way to the nearest watercourse, where they would ceremonially wash themselves and gather pristine Great Friday water to take home and use in their baking.

White Saturday was the day that early Christians baptized new members and converts and the name has evolved from the colour of the robes worn to those ceremonies.

But Sunday’s the big day. The day that Christ rose from the grave, the day of new life cleansed of suffering and victorious over death. The morning is for attending church services, (the bells having returned from Rome) and the early afternoon is set aside for a great feast. After the meal it’s time to visit relatives, and in some places to ride in a horseback procession through the countryside with blessed twigs to ensure fertile fields for the year ahead. While the men and boys are out gallivanting around on horses, girls are at home decorating eggs in preparation for the following day.

Red Monday is the day for a peculiar ritual; the symbolic whipping of girls’ legs with braided willow twigs to encourage vigour and health in the year ahead. Men and boys use green willow twigs to braid their whips, which are known as Pomlázky, (from the verb pomladit; to rejuvenate). The custom probably dates from pre-Christian times and involves men and boys marching throughout town and chasing the girls who make a show of running away.

The whipping is not intended to be painful, but there are undoubtedly occasional miscreants who get carried away and need to be reigned in by somebody’s brother or father. Especially if there happened to have been shots of slivovice at each house in place of the more usual gifts of sweets and painted eggs. In some regions the girls get their revenge on Tuesday when it’s their turn with the whips. In other regions they return the rejuvenation with a bucket of ice-cold water.

Usually, colourful hand-painted eggs are presented to the boys in thanks for bringing the refreshment and invigoration of a new year. The eggs are a symbol of the rebirth of life and hope and are called Kraslice, from the old Czech word krásný, meaning red, which was the most common colour used for dying. Egg decorating is a distinct craft and there are competitions for the best Kraslice and even a dedicated national museum. Different regions have different styles that aficionados can apparently tell apart at a glance.

Like Pomlázky, Kraslice can easily be bought from street markets in the weeks before Easter, and both make interesting and unique souvenirs. If you’d prefer to see the traditions in action, you can take your chances in a random village picked from a map or attend one of the organized festivals at one of the country’s fine ethnographic museums. The photos in this post are all from the Easter festival at the outdoor museum in Rožnov pod Radhoštěm, North Moravia. This year the festival runs from Thursday through Monday, but the best days to visit would be Saturday and Sunday.

If you’re in South Moravia on Monday there will be a procession through the historic centre of Telč beginning at 8am and interestingly, the girls will be doing the whipping because it’s a leap year. In South Bohemia you could visit the Easter markets and museum exhibition at Strakonice, in Northern Bohemia, there are markets in Jablonec nad Nisou, and in Central Bohemia the outdoor museum at Kouřim is a good bet especially if you want to see Judas on Green Thursday.

Happy Easter!

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