Do Czechs know the religious importance of Easter?
For most Czechs, Easter celebrates the coming of spring. It is a time to welcome back the Tulips, the Crocuses and the Daffodils. It is the month of the Easter bunny, Easter eggs, and too much chocolate. But it is also the biggest Christian holiday. Palm Sunday, one week before Easter, celebrates the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is also the day on which Holy Week begins. Holy Thursday, or Maundy Thursday, is in memory of Jesus Christ's Last Supper with his disciples. Good Friday commemorates his crucifixion. And the greatest festival, on Easter Sunday, commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Not always held on the same date, it is celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon on or after the vernal equinox of March 21, which basically means that Easter can come as early as March 22 or as late as April 25. But while Easter is one of the most celebrated holidays among the Czech people, how much do they really know about its religious importance?
Father Josef Blaha is a Catholic priest at St. Ignacius Church in Prague:
"Christianity in today's Czech Republic started around the year 863 with the coming of Cyril and Methodius. Czechs who are somehow religious, obviously put a religious significance to this feast. This means that they really prepare for this celebration at Lent. They fast, and the Easter celebration is the culmination of the period. But we also have the pagan feasts of Spring because the winter is over and the weather gets crazy and there are many habits of giving eggs and whipping and so on, especially on Easter Monday."
So, most Czech Easter celebrations, like the ones you just mentioned have little to do with Christianity, then?
"At least sixty percent of Czechs have no idea about the religious meaning of Easter. Spring has a greater meaning to them because nature is resurrected. A lot of people usually don't go to church but they do only at Christmas and on Easter. They go to mass and to confession to purify their souls. This is their religious meaning."
But as far as food is concerned, it seems that all Czechs, no matter whether they are religious or not, put the same food on the table on this holiday...
"Yes, that is interesting. It is a custom in this country to make special cookies. In the Christian families it is a custom to bake lamb. I already mentioned the Easter eggs, and they also eat a lot of chocolate. All of them want to signify the joy of either Spring or Christ. But for most of the Catholics in this country, during the fast they are supposed to renounce some pleasures. For example, meat, wine or cigarettes. On Easter, it is the day when they can enjoy the cigarette or alcohol or meat. So, for many people it's like a crazy relief that Easter has come."
So, when do Czechs start celebrating Easter?
"The fast begins on Ash Wednesday, which is forty days before Easter because Christ fasted forty days in the desert. In the bible you can find many places mentioning the number forty. For example, the people of Israel travelled through the desert to Israel for forty years, or Moses was forty days on Mount Sinai, where he received the Ten Commandments. Ash Wednesday is a great feast when the priest in the church puts ashes on the foreheads of people. I personally think that it's connected with some sort of a superstition. It's a pagan opinion, many people have - and all churches in the country are full on Ash Wednesday - that the ash is going to heal them."
During the forty years of Communist rule, Christianity was not acknowledged and atheism was promoted. Since 1989 - the fall of the Communist regime - how has the freedom of religion influenced the lives of the Czech people?
"I worked with a lot of university students, especially after the Velvet Revolution. A lot of people came to church but somehow it was not prepared for this turnover of the Communist regime. So, I would say that we have a new form of atheism. It's a more practical form as people don't worship idols like the golden calf but worship their wallets, credit cards and mobile phones. In fact, the numbers of religious people are about the same as during the Communist days. It is true, though, that there are converts to Christianity, not only to the Catholic but also to the Protestant churches."