Even though the Czech Republic is not a very Christian country, Easter is still the most popular national holiday after Christmas. That’s because it’s so much more than just the story of the betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is also a farewell to the cold winter months and a welcoming of spring, an opportunity to meet with family and friends and a fun challenge for children to overcome their fear of strangers and collect sweets. Pagan customs go hand in hand with Christian symbolism. Easter Sunday is celebrated on the first weekend after the first spring full moon, which follows the equinox. But the week before Sunday, the so-called Passion Week begins. These are the most popular customs, traditions and superstitions of the Czech Easter holidays.
Blue Monday and Grey Tuesday
The Christians start their festivities on Wednesday, but since Pagan times, the first two days of the Easter week are reserved for cleaning the house.
Also called Ash Wednesday, because it’s the day when the people used to clean their chimneys. The name Ugly Wednesday is more common in the Czech lands. It reminds us of the betrayal of Judas on this day – an ugly deed. According to an old superstition, you shouldn’t make ugly faces on this day, or else the grimace will get stuck on your face and repeat every Wednesday of the year.
Green (Maundy) Thursday
This is the day of the Last Supper, the one depicted in the famous Da Vinci painting. On this day you should fast or only eat vegetables – spinach is the traditional food (hence the name Green Thursday). You shouldn’t borrow anything on Maundy Thursday, nor should you argue with anyone. As a reward, you will avoid all quarrels for the rest of the year. If you shake the trees in your garden before dawn, they should bear more fruit.
The day of the Crucifixion. Aside from the traditional Christian mass, this day is also believed to be special because it’s the day when nature reveals its secrets. Czech families often take a trip to the mountains or woods to search for hidden treasures that can be found only on this day. Children sometimes find chocolate or other small treasures, but there are also scary stories of people vanishing on this day without a trace. According to the legends, they stumbled across a cave entrance, which wasn’t there the day before. After venturing inside, they find rooms filled with gold and silver. They fail to return to the surface before a given time (usually either noon or midnight) and the cave closes behind them. Some of these stories have happy endings. In the famous book, Kytice by Czech author Karel Jaromír Erben, a woman leaves her child behind in the treasure cave as she runs home with bags filled with gold and as she returns, the cave entrance is gone. Next year on Good Friday, she finds the cave again and her child is inside alive and well.
This day is reserved for silence and mourning the death of Christ. In the evening the Easter vigil mass is held in churches across the country. This year, visitors of the Easter mass are exempt from the Covid-19 restrictions on movement after 9 pm.
It’s the day Jesus was resurrected. Families gather around decorated tables for the traditional Easter feast – usually a sort of brunch. Czechs eat lamb shaped cakes, mazanec (yeast bread with egg wash and almonds), nádivka (delicious Czech stuffing), eggs, and other foods meant to symbolise spring and rebirth. Afterwards, preparations are made for the carolling on Monday. Eggs are hard-boiled and painted with special colours and ornaments. The boys make their pomlázka – whips made of willow branches which are weaved together through a complicated technique and then decorated with colourful ribbons.
Probably the most controversial custom and the culmination of Easter festivities takes place on Easter Monday. It is a working holiday in the Czech Republic, so everyone has time to take part in the traditions. Boys gather in groups in the morning and wander from door to door, where the women wait for them with painted eggs and sweets. A kind of awkward fertility ritual takes place, where the carolers gently hit the women on their behind with their pomlázka to transfer the natural energy of the willow into their bodies. This is often only done among relatives and friends, strangers are instead greeted with a carol. The most common is: “Hody hody doprovody, dejte vejce malovaný. Nedáte-li malovaný, dejte aspoň bílý, slepička vám snese jiný,” meaning: “Carol, carol, give us a painted egg. If you don’t give us a painted one, give us a white one instead, the hen will lay you a new one.” After they are given the egg or something sweet, the carolers put it in their wicker basket and move to the next house. Although the roles for the carolling used to be strictly divided by gender, nowadays girls often join the boys when carolling. A rather rare tradition is that girls pour buckets of water on the carolers – not very popular in the age of smartphones. In some places, adults also go carolling but receive shots of the hard liquor Slivovice instead of eggs. For this reason, police are always on high alert on Easter Monday.
The text was written by Jim Husák