Central Europe's peculiar Easter tradition

In much of Central Europe there's an Easter Monday tradition which can surprise and shock outsiders. Men go from house to house symbolically beating women with a whip made from a few twigs of willow. In some countries, they also pour water or perfume on them. It's supposed to bring women good health throughout the year and women are expected to thank the men with an Easter egg, some food, drink, or a coin. Sounds strange? Katarina Richterova has more on this common custom in Central Europe's Catholic countries:

It probably does sound strange, especially to people that have never heard about this tradition. All these customs are connected with the cycle of nature, the arrival of spring, says ethnologist Dr. Juraj Zajoncz, from the Slovak academy of sciences. But there is plenty more to Easter customs.

"The basic symbols of Easter are water, fire, eggs and a green spray which represents nature. Water and fire represent cleansing. A very old tradition is the egg which has remained as a symbol of Easter until now. Today Easter eggs are used as visual rather than material symbols. We can see eggs for instance in commercials, and that really shows how strong and popular the symbol is."

Beating women with whips and pouring water or perfume on them was, and still is, taken as bringing something good or beneficial into the house says Dr. Zajoncz. This is why the men receive a reward for it.

"Food and eggs were very often given to men as a reward. Cakes, but also alcohol, were a gesture to honour the visitor."

The tradition of beating women with specially woven whips and pouring water on them is considered to be the core of the Easter tradition says Dr. Zajoncz. However we live in a modern world, in an era when women are emancipated and demand equal rights. To learn whether the tradition of beating women on Easter Monday has been effected by this modern approach to gender issues I spoke to Jana Cvikova - co-founder of the feminist and cultural association Aspect. I asked her if she gets beaten or drenched with water on Easter Monday.

"I am not at an age any more when I would want to play these men-women games. So I don't. But from what I see with the younger generations of women, this tradition is not very appealing to them and honestly I can't blame them for feeling this way. Easter is about the welcoming of spring and sharing a sense of freshness. In this sense I don't believe that the tradition treats both sexes as equal, but it is oriented only one way, against the woman."

As many foreigners visiting Slovakia will probably agree, if you don't know the history of the tradition it all comes as something of a mystery, and certainly seems little short of a nation-wide violation of women's rights. Jana Cvikova reacts to this semi-serious question.

"If women are losing a part of their human rights through this tradition, it is also their fault, because to keep up the tradition it takes both sides - men and women. I really hope that women of today are not placing themselves in the position of a victim of this tradition and are rather neglecting or ignoring it. If someone wanted to beat me with a whip I would do the same back to him."

Today most people who practice the tradition are young boys or older men who already have their own family and want to pass the tradition on to their sons. As Jana Cvikova says, this is where the tradition starts to be a problem in terms of equality between men and women.

"What worries me more is that small boys, as soon as they start to walk and talk, or even before that, are given a small whip and allowed to beat their mothers and grandmothers with it. This is a signal for the boy showing that he, as a man, can do something like this to women. And that is not alright."

As we hear, the tradition of Easter and the way it is celebrated in Slovakia has its both its positive and more controversial sides. Dr. Zajoncz says that on the one hand customs and traditions are considered to be unchanging, but on the other people's lifestyle does change and it is important to adjust and modernize customs to our contemporary conditions and needs.

"On one hand we like to continue in traditions although we might not understand many of them, because they give us a sense of certainty in life. It often happens that we add something to the old traditions. For example Easter skiing trips are now becoming a part of this tradition. So although people are not reviving nature in the old-fashioned way, Easter skiing trips make up for this tradition and fulfill the role of a tradition, which is to bring people together."

And in this respect, tradition plays an important role in any society.

"Customs, traditions and ceremonies they have an integrating character. And every society needs them for this matter."

Today, the drastic tradition of beating women with whips and pouring water on them still prevails, although it has been modernised. On Easter Monday, men take their whips and exercise the tradition. But on Tuesday, it is the women's turn to get their own back. As long as that is the case, feminists say, we have equality and the tradition is fine.