Age-old Easter traditions alive and well in Hlinsko

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For many Czechs, Easter goes much further beyond the Christian tradition of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The popular pomlázka, or whipping of women with braided willow sticks, is just one of the customs that have survived around the country from before the arrival of Christianity. Today, they form part of original Czech folklore with roots that go back many centuries.

On White Saturday, the last bits of snow were melting off the roofs of ancient timbered houses in the centre of Hlinsko, a town of 10,000 located on the northern edge of the Bohemian-Moravian Highlands. The area, known as Betlém, is part of an open-air museum that brings ancient folkloric customs and traditions back to life. This time, Betlém featured a small exhibition of Czech Easter traditions. In one of the 18th century houses, typical willow switches were made – by an Englishman. Todd Prichard, who lives in Hradec Králové, came to demonstrate his stick-braiding skills, together with his Czech girlfriend, Eva.

Making the willow stick, photo: Jaroslava Gregorová
“I’m just making some willow sticks for Easter.”

And how did you learn it?

“I was taught by my father-in-law-to-be, who lives in Budislav. I generally make and sell these every year, so I’m just picking up a family tradition.”

You seem to very good at it – was it difficult to learn?

“Yes, it was quite difficult, but you get there in the end, don’t you? Everything comes better with practice.”

What did you think when you first saw these willow switches in action?

“When I first saw it in the village I thought that someone was going to get arrested for what they were doing, beating women, but I think it’s a good tradition, I don’t mind it.”

Together with Todd, his girlfriend Eva Malšová came to Hlinsko to show another Czech Easter tradition.

“This is traditional Czech ginger bread made of honey and flower.”

How did you learn to make it?

“From my mum; she’s been doing for some 30 years, so I inherited it.”

And is there any secret trick to make it special that’s passed on in your family?

“Well, the ginger bread is not that tricky, but it’s the icing that’s difficult to make to be nice and neat.”

Betlém, photo: Veselý Kopec museum
The major venue of the open air museum, located outside just town and called Veselý Kopec, was not yet open for the new season. Easter even in Betlém was very modest but many people, both locals and from elsewhere, found their way there on Saturday in search of their ancestors’ wisdom. One of them was 55-year-old Emil Míka, who drove more than 100 kilometres to get here. He likes that in some parts of the country, Easter traditions are still very much alive.

“It has certainly changed; it used to be very formal in some villages, but now it’s really nice. We have been to see it several times, in Moravia and other places, and it’s beautiful when the whole village takes part in the celebration. It’s one of many holidays. For me it certainly does not mean anything religious, it’s not like celebrating Christian holidays. Some people might do that but I just don’t believe in it.”

Jan Chmelař, a 19-year-old student from Hlinsko, was showing his Prague friends around Betlém on Saturday when I met him.

“I don’t have any religious beliefs, so for me it’s just a holiday, a time to spend with my family and so on.”

Do you do any of the traditions at home? Do you go whipping women with a willow stick on Easter Monday?

“Yes, I think the willow stick tradition is sort of generally accepted in the Czech Republic, so I do it.”

Photo: CTK
Most Czechs feel would agree with Jan Chmelař on this one. According to a 2005 poll by the EU’s Eurobarometer agency, only 19 percent of Czechs said they believed in God. But having no firm belief in God does not prevent people in the Czech Republic from observing Easter, which is now predominantly associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Ethnographer Ilona Vojancová is the head of the open-air museum at Veselý Kopec.

“Many customs in fact originated in pre-Christian times. I have to say that Christianity very skilfully used these pre-Christian customs; we have records showing that the Church tried to ban various customs from those times, but most of them survived despite these bans, and the Church was unable to uproot them, so in many cases, it took them on. Easter is one of the times when pre- Christian customs and ideas blend with the Christian ones.”

Ms Vojancová says that although some of these customs are still being observed, their practical meaning is often long forgotten.

“Our ancestors believed that through various magical practices that accompanied these customs, they could influence future events. These included agricultural and farm work, harvest, or personal life – seeing the future, the health of family members, or whether someone will get married. The customs were not purposeless; they were not entertainment, but they had a dominant feature of what’s called ‘prosperity magic’.”

Photo: CTK
Today, there is one particular custom that’s followed around the country – the famous whipping of women. Men and boys either make their own willow switches, or buy them, and walk around on Easter Monday, lightly whipping girls and women in the family or among friends. The ritual is supposed to provide good health for those who are whipped.

“The custom that’s been preserved in the liveliest form today is carolling on Easter Monday, which is a pre-Christian custom. Easter Monday is the most joyful holiday of the three days when young men walked around the village with sprouting sticks and conveyed the sprouting strength onto the women by whipping, or by throwing fresh water on them. This custom has survived even in the urban environment, although its meaning has shifted a little. But its roots are so strong that they have survived until today, including the prize for the carollers: eggs.”

Tracy Steel is an American Christian missionary living in Hlinsko with his family. It’s his second Easter in the Czech Republic. He grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city with a big Czech community, so his first experienced Czech Easter while still back home.

“The decoration of eggs is similar, you see also that. You would see them hanging in the windows in Czech Village in our town. We have similar traditions in painting the eggs, but here it’s more elaborate and more beautiful.”

When a year ago Tracy Steel first came to the Czech Republic, Easter became a moment to remember, as hew saw the famous custom from a bus on his way from Italy.

“Well the first time I came here over Easter, I brought a group of American teenagers. I was working with military teenagers from a base in Italy. And as we drove by a schoolyard, we saw these boys chasing these girls and whipping them. And of course the American students were very concerned and wanted me to stop the bus and go save the girls – something horrible must have been happening. But when I was able to explain to them, ‘No, no, it’s part of their tradition’, the boys thought it sounded like a great idea. The girls, not so much.”

But the custom which raises many foreign eyebrows is not exclusively Czech. Ethnographer Ilona Vojancová explains.

“This custom has also survived in Slovakia; it exists in parts of Ukraine that were part of Czechoslovakia until WWII, so it’s alive in these areas. And although the custom might astonish foreigners, I can say from my own experience that women like to be ‘whipped’, and could even consider it a disgrace if a family member would break this ancient tradition, because they believe – with a little hyperbole, of course – that it will bring them health.”

In some parts of the Czech Republic, such as southern Moravia, these traditions are more alive than in others. As Moravia is also more religious than the rest of the country, I was wondering whether that’s the reason. But Ms Vojancová says it has more to do with how the traditional way of life changed in each region of the country.

“As far as spring, and more specifically, Easter customs are concerned, there are several different areas of the Czech Republic. In south Moravia, for instance, these customs are still alive and they are very much alive in families. On the other hand, in those areas which were industrialized early on – and the Hlinsko region is one of them – these customs died earlier.”

If you missed Czech Easter this year, make sure that you next come to see some of the centuries-old traditions being revived across the Czech Republic. And be aware that whipping women with willow switches is in fact barbaric – a custom that has survived Christianity and stuck with the Czechs.


The episode featured today was first broadcast on April 6, 2010.