Saints and fairs


In Czech the word "pout" means pilgrimage and from it is derived an event that takes place in almost every Czech town and village at some time in the spring summer or autumn. Staying at my grandparents' house as a child I perceived the annual "pout" as an important event. Preparations for the big day started well in advance with housewives stocking up their larders and baking a vast amount of "kolace" delicious pies with poppy-seed, jam and cottage cheese. There was always enough to feed an army. And indeed, on the day itself an army of relatives would arrive.

Naturally they had been invited - for it was considered a major offence to forget - and we in turn would get an invitation to their "pout" when it came round. From early morning the towns PA system played loud music and the streets became jammed with parked cars. The passengers would spill out, dressed in their Sunday best, bearing a bottle of wine and a box of candy and they would head for one of the houses in town where the door was flung open even before they reached it and they were all given bear hugs, accompanied by cries of "how lovely to see you again". Like weddings and funerals this was an occasion for relatives scattered all over the country to meet. Of course, for us kids the interest centred around a different "pout" - the travelling show that would arrive once a year - and create a fairground on the local football field - roundabouts, fortune tellers, strongmen, a mirror maize and a miniature zoo - an exotic world making a brief stop over in a sleepy town in south Bohemia. At the end of the day we would go home dirty, tired and happy, faces sticky with cotton candy, clutching a few precious souvenirs from the fair.

It was only later that I learned that a "pout" originally started as a pilgrimage to the village church - and the date of the pout was set by the name of the saint to whom the Church had been dedicated. It was held on the Sunday closest to the given saint's name day in the calendar. And, rightly, the whole village should have headed to the local church for a special thanksgiving mass. However then -as now - few people actually do that and in the midst of the eating, drinking and merrymaking the given saint stays very much in the background. It would probably surprise many kids today who head for the Matejska pout - now a permanent fairground in Prague - that originally it was a pilgrimage to a nearby church dedicated to St. Mathew.