Sacraments: new book documents ancient customs, including those linked to spring and Easter

Easter feast, photo: Michaela Karásek Čejková

Easter celebrations in the Czech Republic combine both Christian traditions and ancient pagan customs, many of which are connected with the cycle of nature and the arrival of spring. Many of the fascinating rituals linked to this time of year are captured in a book called Svátosti or Sacraments released by the Prague based Wo-Men publishing house in a Czech-English edition.

The book was written by garden architect Lucie Králíková and accompanied by photographs by Michaela Karásek Čejková. Here is a short excerpt from the introduction:

“Michaela and I wanted to learn to stop in time again and experience dailiness more deeply. Our ancestors were naturally able to do so through many customs and rituals that used to liven up the year, otherwise filled mostly with tedium and hard work. Traditions helped them perfectly connect with nature and overcome material deficiency in the long harsh winters, to be then more delighted with the arrival of sunny days and the awakening of all living things.

“Many customs and rituals disappeared once we abandoned the faith in the sacred and lost our relationship to the land. Some rituals have fortunately survived to this day, although they are celebrated and maintained only by a small community. We wanted to know, understand, and mainly experience these small, not quite forgotten customs and ceremonies.”

Líto,  photo: Michaela Karásek Čejková

The idea to create a book which would trace old rituals and customs originated back in 2015, says one its authors, Michaela Karásek Čejková.

Together with Lucie Králíková, she spent the next couple of years researching, travelling, and meeting people who celebrated their traditions and handed them down to future generations:

“We went through loads of books dedicated to old traditions and customs. Many of them mentioned specific places where old rituals and customs are still being observed.

“Based on this information, we contacted the mayors of these villages and municipalities asking whether we could come and document them. Sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn’t.

“For instance when we photographed the Saint Lucia’s rounds in the Šumava Mountains, which precede Christmas, we followed a group of women who walked around the neighbourhood, telling people to tidy up.

These women were quite rough, but they really made us welcome. But when we tried to document Saint Martin’s kermesse in Kyjov, the people there let us know they our presence was disturbing.”

Judas,  photo: Michaela Karásek Čejková

The author of the text, which is written in the form of diary entries, is Lucie Králíková. As a garden architect and founder of an ecological flower shop, she pays special attention to flowers and their role in various folk customs and rituals.

“Intoxicating plants with beautiful shapes and colours or healing powers used to be a natural part of ancient customs and ceremonies. People used them to celebrate – connected both to nature and to each other. The plant as the narrator of the story, the incarnate deity, the saint’s attribute, part of Mother Nature or God’s garden, the link between humankind and the now-distant nature and landscape, draws us into the story – to reveal the forgotten context.”

Just like ancient rituals, the book follows the cycle of nature, starting with spring and Easter. Michalea Karásek Čejková says that many of the customs and rituals linked to this time of year are somehow connected with water:

“It is an element that goes through the whole Easter period. Water has a purifying and healing power and it is supposed to wash away all the evil that has settled in us in the course of the year. That’s why ceremonious bathing in cold water takes place on Good Friday, usually before sunrise.”

Judas,  photo: Michaela Karásek Čejková

One of the most striking traditions, documented in the book Sacraments, is the festive afternoon procession led by Judas, Jesus’ betrayer, which takes place on Holy Saturday.

It is a culmination of the three day rounds, during which the boys walk around the village with wooden rattles, which are supposed to replace the silent bells and drive out evil spirits from the houses they pass.

The tradition is still observed today in the village of Vraclav near Vysoké Mýto, says Michaela Karásek Čejková:

„On Holy Sunday, a group of boys between the ages of 12 and 15 gather outside the village. They have already chosen the one who will play Judas.

“They dress him in a costume made of hay and flax fibres, which weighs around 30 kilograms and paint his face with soot.

“Wearing the costume, he has to walk around the whole village as a symbol of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. Afterwards, they ritually burn the costume.”

Michaela Karásková Čejková says that accepting such a role is a challenge for every boy, but completing the task, which is regarded as a sort of ritual initiation into adulthood, can be really gruelling.

Saint John’s bed,  photo: Michaela Karásek Čejková

While the boys have their three-day rattling, the girls do their round on Passion Sunday, walking around the neighbourhood, singing carols and carrying a small maypole, a sort of magical ceremonial tree:

“The girls would decorate a young tree with colourful ribbons, holy cards and little wooden birds. They would walk around the village, spinning the small maypole in their hands. For the poorest girls, it would also be a way to collect food when all the winter reserves had been depleted.”

Afterwards, the garlanded tree is planted near beehives or into flowerbeds to protect young seedlings.

Spring and Easter rituals are not connected only with the element of water, but also with fire. On Easter Saturday, sacred fires, made from wood of certain plants, were made in front of the church, consecrated with holy water:

“The piercing, healing fire of thorns, the fire of life used to be made from the wood of certain plants. Blackthorns, hawthorns, wild roses, or juniper trees were burned. Vegetable waste from the cemetery – wreaths, pruned branches, and remains of coffins – were thrown on the fire, too.

“Farmers used to take the remains of burnt branches and embers home as protection against harmful fires and thunderstorms. They retained a respect for the carbonised detritus, which they also hid in their barns and beehives. At night, they made fires in the orchard for a good fruit harvest and lit candles in the windows.”

Judas,  photo: Michaela Karásek Čejková

That was another excerpt from the book Sacraments, written by Lucie Králíková. Michaela Karásek Čejková accompanied her diary entries with striking photos, both documentary and artistic. She says it took her quite a long time to figure out how to approach the subject:

“At first I was tempted to do a series of documentary photos. But then I thought: Why should I take pictures of what has already been described in the text?

“Instead, I decided to take photos of the people who observe the rituals. I also tried to express the idea behind the rituals by creating collages, which I often use in my work, and then I placed them side by side with the portraits.”

In the introduction to their book, the authors of Sacraments express their hope that by adopting some of the ancient rituals or by creating their own ones, people will reconnect with nature and strengthen their relationship to the surrounding.

Michaela Karásek Čejková, who gave birth to a daughter during the process of making the book, says she adopted some of the old rituals mainly thanks to her child. One of her favourite customs is connected with the Feast of Saint John.

“There are many traditions linked to Saint John, but the one I like most is Saint John’s bed. According to the custom, girls would gather nine medicinal plants and spread them on a sheet in the shape of circle, creating a sort of flower bed.

“St John would come at night to lie on the bed, consecrating all the plants by laying down his head on them. In the morning, he would leave small gifts on the bed for children, such as nuts. And the plants he slept on are filled with a unique healing power. I really love this tradition!”