Happy Easter, dear Readers!
In some ways, Easter here is rather similar to Easter in America. There are lots of brightly colored eggs, the grocery stores fill up with chocolate, pictures of cute duckies and lambs and bunnies are everywhere, and bright springy colors abound. That’s pretty much where the similarities end, though.
Easter is a much more important holiday in the Czech Republic than it is in America. As at Christmas, the biggest squares play host to Easter Markets. These markets are similar to the Christmas markets with delicious food, some
craft items, some kitschy souvenirs, and some holiday décor. For Easter, there were lots of ornately-decorated eggs. Most of them are hollowed-out real eggs hand-decorated with either geometric patterns or Easter scenes. They also have less fragile wooden eggs for sale, in addition to more familiar little chick and rabbit figurines. *Spoiler Alert!* There is no Easter Bunny.
A few weekends ago, there were two days of stunning sunny weather. Since winter is still in fairly full swing here, the sunny days make a big difference, so I decided to get out and walk to the Easter market at Naměsti Míru, which had been the site of my favorite Christmas market. The dominant feature of the market is a giant Easter tree decorated with eggs, chicks, and vibrant streamers. It was quite the sight! I enjoyed my langoš (fried flat bread topped with garlic, ketchup, and cheese – amazing!) and wandered the market, picking up a few little Easter decorations for my apartment and enjoying the sun.
The traditions for Easter itself are almost entirely different from those in America. The Czech Republic is not a particularly religious country, in general. Perhaps as a result of that, or perhaps just because it’s fun and traditional, many of the pagan traditions for Easter survive and continue to be practiced in varying forms today.
For one thing, Easter Sunday is mostly just a prep day for Easter Monday. People dye eggs, Babkas start cooking, but the main event takes place on Easter Monday. (Interestingly and tellingly, Easter Monday is a national holiday here, but Good Friday is not.) On Monday morning some combination of several things traditionally takes place. Boys arrive at the homes of girls they know or like (or, if it’s a small enough town, at every house in town). They bring with them a traditional willow whip called a pomlázka. In the most traditional iterations of this ritual, the boy whips the girl (playfully) and the girl gives him an egg. Today, that egg is more likely to be chocolate and/or, if the boy is really lucky (and hopefully of a certain age), a shot of slivovice (traditional plum brandy). Afterwards, she ties a ribbon to his pomlázka, and he goes off to the next stop to repeat the process. In addition or instead of this tradition, in some places, there is also the tradition of boys dowsing girls with water. These traditions are much more prevalent in the countryside and in smaller villages, but aspects of them are definitely preserved even in the largest cities.
These are all traditional rituals that stem from symbols of fertility and spring renewal. That said, for many foreigners not raised in this tradition (and I’m sure for many Czechs, too), it can be a bit hard to swallow, for obvious reasons. The reinforcement of gender roles, the encouragement of boys to beat girls (even playfully in good fun) is decidedly not in keeping with contemporary attitudes about gender equality and the way we treat women. As a fellow expat in Prague pointed out in a recent blog post, particularly in the wake of recent highly publicized acts of sexual violence against women, it’s hard to feel that it’s ok to send your kids to school where the boys will make whips to beat the girls and the girls will decorate eggs to give to the boys after their whipping.
That said, as another American living in the Czech Republic pointed out at a recent gathering of expats, it would be sad if these ancient traditions faded away. If you think about it, it’s remarkable that traditions like this still endure in modern culture in a form very similar to the way they were practiced hundreds of years ago. Over the weekend I saw a commercial for a Slovak soap opera that featured lots of pomlázky and women being dowsed from water bottles. These traditions are still very much alive, even in mainstream popular culture.
As someone who is living in Prague, but with a clear expiration date on my time here (that does not include raising children here), it’s easy for me to be charmed by these traditions without having to think too hard about them. I do wonder, though, how I would feel if I was going to be living here for a longer time and would have to grapple with raising children here. I hope I could find a way to foster an appreciation for tradition while still reaffirming more modern ideas about gender.
Anyway, enough with the deep thoughts. What did I do for Easter? Well, I was settling in for a quiet long weekend at home. I’d bought a whole chicken on sale at the grocery store and was looking forward to a nice little Easter feast and watching lots of the West Wing while eating Easter candy. Saturday afternoon as I bestirred myself to go meet a friend for lunch, I got a message from my uncle in Bratislava. “Hey Em,” it said, “we just realized it’s a holiday weekend. I know it’s last minute, but why don’t you hop on a train and come down for the rest of the weekend?” Those of you who know me know that I am one of the least spontaneous people in the world. Even simple weekend trips usually involve lots of planning and packing lists on my part. But the idea of sitting home along suddenly sounded lonely and the idea of going to Bratislava suddenly seemed like a great one! So I threw some things in my backpack, had a quick lunch with my friend, and then hopped on the 5:30 train to Bratislava!
As always, it was a delightful weekend with lots of relaxing, thousands of calories of delicious food, and quality time with the family. Since the plan was so last minute, Babka didn’t know I was coming, and my aunt intentionally didn’t tell her to prevent her from adding a few more dishes to the already extensive Easter menu. It was really fun to surprise her when we showed up for Sunday Lunch: Special Easter Edition. So what did we eat? The better question would be, what didn’t we eat? In some ways this was almost a caricature of a Central European meal. I swear, there was pork stuffed with pork. And yes, I ate it. And yes, it was delicious. I took these pictures of the table before about half of the dishes had emerged, but you can already see pickles, salad (which nobody touched), soup, potato salad, a big plate of various types of pork products, and a relish platter of sorts with pickles, hard-boiled eggs, and sausages. After I took the picture, rice, dumplings, gravy, chicken legs, beef tongue, and a type of very thin flat bread (almost like a tortilla made of potato flour) emerged. Plus, of course, two types of strudel, several types of store-bought sweets, alcohols and coffee. Needless to say I was completely stuffed by the end.
Sunday night, Paul, Elena, Liam, and I hit the plavarna (bath house) to swim off the feast (ok, let’s be real, I just sweated it all off in the hot tub), which was a great way to end the day. Monday we went back to Babka’s for round two (equally as delicious, equally as filling, equally as delightful) before I hopped on the late afternoon train back to Prague. I was not victim to any of the aforementioned Easter traditions, but we did see some boys walking through the neighborhood with pomlázky that told us (by the number of ribbons) that they’d had a successful morning. If all spontaneous travel is this fun, I might be convinced to become spontaneous!
Information about Czech Easter traditions came from the following sources:
Christian Falvey, “Czech Easter rituals and their ancient origins,” http://www.radio.cz/en/section/special/czech-easter-rituals-and-their-ancient-origins
Dana Shanberg, “Czech Easter (Velikonoce),” http://www.myczechrepublic.com/czech_culture/czech_holidays/easter/index.html
Gail Whitmore, “No Sweetie, You Can’t Hit Women and I Don’t Care If It’s Easter!” http://czech.ihollaback.org/no-sweetie-you-cant-hit-women-and-i-dont-care-if-its-easter/