Tracing the many Czech Easter traditions

Photo: jackmac34, Pixabay

Czechs have a plethora of Easter traditions that take place every year including the whipping of women with willow branches, painting eggs, or baking sweetbreads that look like a lamb. Some of these are based on the Christian celebration itself, others are thought to stretch back further into pagan times.

Just like last year, 2021 Easter celebrations in the Czech Republic will be marked by a less social atmosphere due to the ongoing coronavirus measures. However, this is unlikely to impact the majority of the country’s Easter traditions, which tend to concern the family and local community.

Petra Pospěchová,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů

While Easter itself is celebrated in either March or April, just as other Christians, Czechs who are religious tend to fast during the roughly two-month period of lent. However, the observance of lent can also be at least attempted by members of the non-Christian majority of the Czech population. Food critic Petra Pospěchová, told Radio Prague International in 2019 that this seems to be a trend over the recent past.

“I would say that in the last few years more and more people are returning to the tradition of Lent and decide to abstain from something –it can be meat, it can be alcohol, it can be smoking, but it can also be getting rid of bad habits, some people decide they should be less angry, more patient with others and so on. So those are also ways how to observe Lent. Many people today lack spirituality in their life, and in some way they need it and although they are not religious they say to themselves OK – I will try it for 40 days and see. And then the next year they do it again – it becomes a nice custom.”

Days of the week

Photo: Jana Šustová

The week leading up to Easter itself is characterised by a multi-coloured palette of names for each day. There is Blue Monday, Grey Tuesday, Ugly Wednesday, Green Thursday, Big (Good) Friday, White (Holy) Saturday, Sunday and, Easter Monday.

Explanations for why some of these days got their specific names are many. Some of the most common are that Blue Monday, a day when people typically did not work, comes from the German use of the word “blue” to communicate that one is not doing anything.

Grey Tuesday on the other hand is generally believed to have received its name as symbolising the dust being swept out, as this was a day when wives typically cleaned up the house ahead of the holy celebrations.

Ugly Wednesday’s nickname comes from something more sinister - the day of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. One superstition is that people who frown on this day will end up with a frown for the whole rest of the year.

Green Thursday gets its name from the tradition of people eating green vegetables on that day. This is the beginning of serious Easter celebrations, as it is the day of The Last Supper and the beginning of the Easter Triduum.

Jidáše,  photo: Klára Stejskalová

Petra Pospěchová told us more about the meaning behind the words for the days and the traditions that are connected with them.

“On Wednesday (we call it “ugly Wednesday” because it is the day on which Judas betrayed Jesus Christ ) people would bake traditional small cakes called Jidáše –or Judas cakes which are made from leavened dough and they have the shape of a knot or loop on which Judas hanged himself. Then you have Green Thursday –where the name itself indicates what people ate – it had to be green, spinach, nettles, they had newly-grown herbs in the house. People ate soups, salads whatever, as long as it was green.

“Friday was the hungry day, a day when healthy people should not eat at all or they should have one light meal only. Definitely no meat, light food and not much of it because that is the day when we mourn the death of Jesus and we should keep our minds away from food and focus on the spiritual.”

Easter eggs

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Good Friday is also the first of the Easter public holidays that Czechs have. It can be used as a day to rest, but also as a time to finish painting Easter eggs, which have a long tradition in the country. Ethnographer Jana Poláková told Radio Prague International in 2019 that, in Moravia, these eggs did not just have an aesthetic, but often also important signalling role.

“Easter eggs are given as presents, as a symbol of new life. Even though, during the willow whipping, children get chocolates and sweets, and men often get a shot of brandy. In other words, Easter present-giving is only about food and that is probably why the commercial aspect is not as strong as with Christmas. Yes, you can see special chocolates and some other Easter-related items in the shops, but Christmas is incomparably more commercialized.

“The egg was not just a symbol of new life but also a coded message from the girl to the boy. In earlier times, there were quite strict rules about what could, or rather could not, be openly said especially about intimate relationships. So the painted eggs gave girls the opportunity to send a message to a boy. And there were different colors to indicate whether he would have a chance if he wanted to court her. Some girls even wrote messages on the eggs and then they had to be very careful about which boy got which egg, so that the message would reach the right boy. So boys would not be allowed to choose an egg themselves. They would get their egg and other presents depending on the message the girl wanted to send.”

Easter lamb sweetbread

Easter lamb sweetbread,  photo: Štěpánka Budková

When it comes to Easter Sunday, or Resurrection Day, even many atheist Czechs tend to go to church. This year, church attendance will be considerably smaller, due to government measures. However, people will be able to attend mass virtually.

One more tradition, is to bake a lamb-shaped sweetbread. This is actually relatively recent, food critic Petra Pospěchova told Radio Prague International.

“Under communism people adopted habits from the old days. In the old days most households had lamb on Easter Sunday and the poorest families who could not afford lamb baked a sweetbread in the shape of a lamb. Under communism there was no lamb to be had in the shops, so people baked something from leavened dough in the shape of a lamb, or, where I come from, in the east of the country, farmers would make it from steamed cheese. And in the communist days people just substituted the meat they couldn’t get in the shops in a similar way. The sweet lamb made of dough is a tradition most families keep to this day. They have a baking mould for the lamb and put raisins for they eyes, cloves for the nose and tie a ribbon round its neck. As I child I loved it. I would always ask to decorate the lamb.”

Whipping girls

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

The final day of celebrations is Easter Monday. A public holiday, Easter Monday features perhaps the most iconic Czech Easter tradition, which does not have anything to do with religion - whipping girls (pomlázka). The common belief that underpins it is that girls and women have to be lightly whipped with willow branches in order to make sure they do not “dry up” over the year and help them remain “fresh”. Some parts of Moravia also feature the act of pouring cold water over the girls.

In 2018, Radio Prague International explored this tradition by asking several people about how they perceive this custom.

One of them was Jitka Hausenblasová from the NGO Gender Studies.

“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.”

A different answer came from Petra Pospěchová, who stressed the interactive nature of the tradition.

“I am used to the fact that when I open the door I see one of my neighbours who has come to give me a whipping. And if there is a newcomer to the village, it is a good way to get to know him. To be in Prague, where you don’t know people in the neighbourhood, not to be whipped, not to hand out eggs, to laugh and pour drinks that would be very strange.”

Whether one agrees with willow whipping or not, they are likely to see less of it in 2021 due to the coronavirus restrictions. The tradition is nevertheless so popular, that women are likely to get at least some whipping from their family members.