Easter in Prague
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Most of the superstitious stuff has fallen by the wayside over the years but, the celebration, togetherness and the fun stuff is still with us. Most non-religious people understand only the period from Easter Friday to Easter Monday and the fact that they get a day off work or two. There’s more to it than that.
A New Beginning…
The Easter holidays symbolize the end of winter and the beginning of spring and have, just as the Christmas holidays, pagan roots. The pagan Slavs and Germans celebrated the beginning of Spring as the awakening of nature from its winter sleep. Jews celebrate their own great holiday – Passover, the Holiday of Mercy, in remembrance of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt. In Czech, the word Velikonoce refers to the Velka noc, or great night, during which Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The night from White Saturday to Easter Sunday was from ancient times regarded as the greatest night on the Church calendar. Easter Sunday always follows the first full moon after the first day of Spring. Using this timetable, Easter should always occur sometime within the period between March 22 and April 25.
From the description of events it appears that the crucifiction took place shortly after the beginning of Spring and after a full moon. The Christian Easter in Prague was dedicated to the memory of the martyrdom and resurrection of Christ and became a meaningful Church holiday. But to this holiday of resurrection was also added a number of customs and traditions with a pre-christian, or pagan origin, such as the colouring of eggs, a symbol of fertility and life for the pagans.
During Easter in Prague, on Passion Sunday, fourteen days before Easter Sunday, the girls would create “Marena” who was a symbol of winter and death. Their creation represented the end of winter – meaning want and cold. Marena was as a rule made of thatch and dressed in girl’s clothes, which the girls would remove as they threw her into the brook. They would then lead the procession back to the village (you certainly don’t see this as a general celebration but, religious groups still practice it). Christian celebrations of Easter begin a week before the God’s feast on Easter Sunday, with Flower Sunday, the start of Passion week. Pussywillow branches, wood, and water are blessed in churches (less so nowadays). Crosses are made from the wood, which the men of the parish distribute around their fields and pray for a rich crop for the next year (crosses are still to be seen but, more likely a permanent stone or metal fixture which would be decorated with fresh flowers).
Green Thursday (or Maunday Thursday) begins the so-called Holy Three-Day, among the most significant days of the Church year. The popular name of Green Thursday arose from the Old Testament custom of eating vegetables on this day. On this day of the final evening of the Lord, all bells are rung before they are silenced until White Saturday. The sound of bells, about which it is said that they were cast in Rome, are replaced by children’s rattle and clappers and are rattled morning noon and night in the place of bells, and were even used to drive out Judas.
Easter Good Friday was always regarded by the Catholic Church as the day of greatest grief in the Church. Did you know that it is the only day in the year when mass is not held anywhere in the world. Organs are silent, all ornaments are cleared from the altar, and no lights are burned. The cross is shrouded in a black veil. There are also a number of superstitions connected to Great Friday. As far as Easter in Prague goes, people get up very early on this day and hurry down to the brook or river, where they wash themselves with cold water and then cross the brook or stream with bare legs because they believed that this ensured good health for the whole next year. Women carried out their quilts to air out, in order to get rid of of sicknesses and and chase ailments out of the house. They would also take their daughters down to wash at the well, so they’d be pretty and well spoken for. No men would be out in the fields, as they couldn’t yet do a thing with it. Many believed that on this day the earth gave up its secret treasures and that water sprites came out onto dry land. The weather for the whole year was foretold from the weather on Great Friday.
White Saturday, a procession parades around the whole square. Pieces of wood were scorched and taken by people to put in the rafters of their houses for protection against lightning and fire (not strictly for Easter in Prague and more likely to be a rural tradition). Trees were shaken, so that they had a lot of fruit. White Saturday was regarded, along with Green Thursday, as a lucky day for sowing. The fast ended on this day. Bells were rung before noon. White Saturday used to be a day of peace and quiet. Daytime church services were not held at all, and services were held instead either in the after-evening hours after the sun went down, or after midnight. Only blessed candles and lights were used in the church during these night-time services. On Sunday, God’s feast of Easter, people went to church for the ceremonial mass.
For Easter in Prague that meant that nobody was allowed to work on this Sunday and the family spent the day together, eating and drinking together. In the morning, men would distribute twigs of consecrated pussywillow blessed on Flower Sunday around their fields. Women and girls painted Easter eggs and men and boys braided Easter wands from willow twigs.
Easter Monday is a day of joy for children and adults alike and is the most active day during Easter in Prague. Men and boys set out in search of girls, in order to whip them with their Easter wands, which are braided from four, six, or eight willow branches and decorated with one or more coloured ribbons. The original interpretation of the “mrskacky” or “slehacky” was one of rejuvenation – transferring the vitality of young twigs to a living being. During this singing and whipping, the girls present the boys with painted Easter eggs (painted, coloured, or even just white). In Prague the coloured type is most popular as when you boil the eggs you just add colour and it impregnates the eggshell. Lots of deep reds, blues and greens in the basket. The most used colour for colouring eggs was red, the color of love. The best known rhyme still remains today:
Hody, hody, doprovody,
dejte vejce malovany,
dejte aspon bily,
vsak vam slepicka snese jiny.
( …, give a painted egg,
if you don’t give a painted one,
give at least a white one,
the hen will bring you something different.)
In the homes, young men would also receive something besides eggs – glasses of some harder alcohol and “mazanec” (hot cross buns). Boys would mostly go to the house of the prettiest girl first, and for girls it was a disgrace if nobody came to whip them. This tradition, with which young men can show affection in their own ways to the fairer sex, has survived even into the present day, especially in the smaller towns and villages. Thanks to this custom, young men could visit young women and drink alcohol with their families, and their merry ways were tolerated on this day at least.
In conclusion it must be added that Easter in Prague, just as Christmas, is a religious holiday that continued to be celebrated even in socialist Czechoslovakia. It simply acquired a slightly different interpretation from the years 1948 to 1989 – it was celebrated officially as a holiday of spring.
The fast before Easter lasts forty days, following the example of Jesus, who fasted in the desert for forty nights, and ends the night after White Saturday on the Holy Feast of Easter, or Easter Sunday. The fast depends on the date of Easter and always begins on a Wednesday , no earlier than the 8th of February and no later than the 14th of March. This Wednesday is called Ash Wednesday, but was also popularly known as Spy Wednesday, Black or Mad Wednesday. On Ash Wednesday, believers in Catholic churches are given sanctified ash, which by ancient tradition is obtained by burning twigs, mostly pussywillow, which was blessed the previous year on Flower Sunday. With the ashes, which are an old symbol from the Old Testament of penance and humility, the priest makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the believer. After the giving of ashes, men hurry from the church straight to the pub, to wash it off with a glass of beer or something harder. In earlier times, the fast was much more strict. Meat, cheese and eggs weren’t eaten, nor was milk drunk or butter or fat spread on bread, vegetable oil being used instead. Alcohol was not drunk and tobacco was neither smoked nor taken as snuff. Only one meal a day was eaten, and this was of fruit and vegetables. The fast was later softened – various soups were eaten, such as bean, lentil, cabbage, sour, and carraway. Aside from soups, other simple meatless foods were served, like scones, millet mash, dumplings with damson-cheese, potatoes with milk, or just bread with sauerkraut. People then were well aware that if they weren’t so active and out working in the fields, then they couldn’t eat as much as during the year. Fasting was therefore very beneficial and could even be interesting to those of us today looking for ways to lose weight. An old proverb says “Fasting has yet to starve anyone to death”.
It must be admitted though, that the fast was preceded by a time of plenty, in which the butchering and pork feasts were traditionally held along with the Shrovetide carnival, when masked processions paraded through the streets and villages. This activity had many supporters, but also critics, especially among the secular, rank-and-file priests. The most common and popular masks were those of animals – bears, goats, dogs, sheep, rams, pigs, horses, or chickens. Many of the mask-wearers had their tasks already cut out for them, such as the bears who would scare little children. While noisily singing, shouting, and dancing, the masked procession made its way from house to house, where the participants were treated to food and, mostly, drink. The whole masquerade ended in the pub, where the eating, drinking, and merrymaking often continued to the morning. This tradition of the merry Shrovetide Carnival has been passed down most of all in Moravia, though it also is celebrated in Bohemia.
Easter Egg Decorations
Easter in Prague cannot be without the colouring and decorating of eggs, whether they’re boiled or only shells – from which the raw yolk is blown through two opposite holes poked in the top and bottom – is not only a Czech tradition. Painted eggs were discovered in a Sumerian excavation from the year 2,500 BC. These eggs were deposited in the graves along with the dead as a symbol of never-ending life, which fulfilled the pagan conception of life after death. By painting them they multiplied their magical powers.
Many centuries later, eggs are decorated as an embryo of new life. For this reason, decorating eggs was a tradition for welcoming Spring, when nature was coming back to life. The growth of Christianity weakened this sense of the egg, and the interpretation of the egg as a gift to the living grew stronger. The pagan origins of this newly-conceived tradition didn’t escape the attention of the Church, which condemned and severely forbade it in Prague in 1366. Perhaps it was the poetic nature of the custom, or simply the unknown magical strength of giving eggs as gifts which caused the tradition of decorating and giving away “Easter” eggs to survive to the present day and even become a popular craft.
This text is an edited version of archived material at www.radio.cz. It is no longer possible to access this text directly through their site and so I maintain it for my personal interest.
If you are here in late April then also check the Witches Night celebration.