The Czech Easter tradition of whipping girls

Pomlázky, photo: Klára Stejskalová

The Czech Republic has a rather unusual tradition on Easter Monday. Boys get willow branches, braid them together into whips and decorate them with ribbons to whip girls with for luck and fertility. The word for this whip in Czech is pomlázka, which has also become the name of the tradition itself. To learn more about pomlázka I interviewed three Czechs. The first is a 17 year-old-girl with several brothers, the second is an active feminist and the third is an expert on Czech folklore.

Pomlázky,  photo: Klára Stejskalová

First I meet with Noemi, a 17 year old Czech girl, who tells me about the Czech Easter tradition of pomlázka.

Noemi: “In my family there are three guys. Come Easter they make whips from willow branches and put ribbons on the whips, for the day after Easter, for Monday. In the morning they whip the girls with the pomlazka. They do it for the girl's health and they sing a song ‘Hody, hody, doprovody, dejte vejce malovaný, nedáte-li malovaný, dejte aspoň bílý, slepička vám snese jiný " which means something like "Feast, Feast give me a painted egg if you don't give me a painted one give me at least white one, the hen will give you another.’"

And do you like the tradition?

Noemi: “Uh, I don't like it because boys have fun, and girls not. But sometimes my brothers are considerate.”

Has it changed from the past till now?

Noemi: “In the past it was worse because boys came really early in the morning. They hit the girls a lot, they poured water on the girls and then they wanted an egg or something sweet. It's terrible. ”

Jitka Hausenblasová is from the NGO Gender Studies.

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

Jitka: “In a discussion on Facebook, some people were expressing their opinions against pomlázka. But I was also listening to the radio the other day and the presenters were asking the listeners, ‘how did you enjoy Easter Monday, how did you celebrate, did you get hit a lot? Tell us how it was.’ The listeners were sending them messages. There were so many girls stating – ‘yeah, I was hit a lot but it will give me luck for the next year.’ So, you can see, it's not men against women. Women comply with it. They don't think about any other consequences. They are playing the game. And even if they don’t like it – and I'm sure some of them don't like – they just turn a blind eye and accept it, because it's much easier.

Jan Pohunek works at the Ethnographic Museum, part of the National Museum, in the picturesque setting of a villa in the park Kinského zahrada in Prague 5. It’s not well known to tourists but is well worth a visit. I went along to the park to find him.

Jan Pohunek: “I am the curator of this museum and its collections.”

And here we can see the willow whips that are used. Can you tell me more about the exhibit?

Jan Pohunek: “Our permanent exhibit is mostly about traditional folk culture and it shows the best part of traditional folk culture – from the artistic and historical points of view. So the things we can see here are mostly things that are chosen for the exhibit. Downstairs there are things presented which are more connected to the daily life. This upper part that we are standing in houses an exhibition or gallery.”

How did the tradition of pomlázka actually begin? Is it related to religion or is it more pagan?

Photo:  Eva Turečková,  Radio Prague International

Jan Pohunek: “Well, it's complicated because Easter itself is the most important Christian celebration of the year. However, there are lots of Prague Christian traditions which merged with the pre-Christian ones. Concerning the beginning of Easter as a celebration, it cannot be said for sure. In Bohemia, as a Christian tradition, it can be traced back to the early Middle Ages. However, many of those Prague Christian customs are much older, but we do not know how old they are because there are not many remains that tell us. The other thing is that traditions develop and change over time. So even if we have some custom or tradition, we cannot say, 'OK, this is how it was celebrated 2,000 years ago’.”

As I'm standing here can you tell me some of the reasons why you chose to display, for example, the traditional costumes and the eggs?

Jan Pohunek: “This room shows traditional folk custumes from the time of Carnival up to Easter. So, we do not have only Easter in this room. We also have Carnival and Carnival costumes, and of course there are other things which are directly related to Easter. Like those whips and those small machines for making noises, and the painted eggs and so on.”

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