Czechs prepare to celebrate witch-burning night amid coronavirus restrictions

Photo: Eva Turečková

Thursday evening will see the traditional witch-burning celebration in many parts of the Czech Republic. While the night of April 30 is normally an excuse for large gatherings, this time it is affected by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The government has called for smaller celebrations in family circles, while the fire service, whose resources are already extended, have asked the public to register their bonfires online.

Photo: Eva Turečková

It used to be a religious event aimed at warding off witches. However, in modern times the Czech Republic’s version of Walpurgis Night, known as the “burning of witches” (pálení čarodějnic), has developed into an annual social and entertainment gathering where straw figurines are set alight.

Normally many public events take place around the country. However, this year, Interior Minister Jan Hamáček has called for gatherings of no more than 10 people, due to the ongoing state of emergency and protective measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Despite the limits, shopping attitudes suggest that many Czechs are counting on celebrating the tradition.

The spokesman for one of the country’s largest supermarket chains, Penny, Tomáš Kubík, says that people are buying the usual outdoor supplies, although not just due to Walpurgis Night.

Photo: Magdalena Kašubová
“During the past days we see the growth of sales of sausages, mustard and beer. This is due to preparations for the celebration of this festival. It is also because Friday is a public holiday and people are buying these products to prepare for the weekend. Furthermore, we see the effect of closed pubs and restaurants.”

It is not just infection risk that is worrying the authorities. Meteorologists highlighted earlier this month that the country is experiencing a period of drought this year, at a level unprecedented in 500 years.

The option of banning fires on the occasion was discussed between the country’s Fire Rescue Service and the Ministry of Interior. However, the current limits on public gatherings, coupled with a rain forecast for Thursday evening, resulted in the decision that no country-wide ban is necessary.

Nevertheless, some regions, including Vysočina, Northern and Southern Bohemia, have decided to ban bonfires during Walpurgis Night anyway.

The Fire Rescue Service has meanwhile called for members of the public to voluntarily register their planned fires, so as to be better prepared for any eventuality.

Deputy Director General of the Fire Rescue Service David Miklos explained how the idea should work on Czech Radio.

“There is a special web page, which can be accessed by citizens via our website. You fill out a form, which asks who is organising the event and what safety measures are in place.”

Another reason fire officers want to have a better overview of what is happening is because their current resources are being drained through operations associated with preventing the spread of coronavirus, such as transporting PPE gear and liquidating COVID-19 infected equipment.