Czech Republic, Easter and Holy Week in

Czech Republic, Easter and Holy Week in

The Czech word for Easter is Velikonoce, which comes from the Czech phrase, "Great Night." This name refers to the night that falls between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday, during which, according to Czech tradition, Jesus rose from the dead (see also Resurrection).

Black Sunday

Some writers believe that Czech Easter celebrations absorbed some of the pagan customs associated with spring in pre-Christian times. For example, on Black Sunday, the Czech folk name for the Sunday that falls two weeks before Easter, village girls band together and create a straw dummy called Morena, which serves as symbol of winter, want, and death (for more on the second Sunday before Easter, see Passion Sunday). After dressing her in some of their own clothes local youth parade the dummy to a nearby river or brook. Once there they undress her, beat her, and throw her into the water to drown. This act represents the death of winter and the arrival of spring and new life. Afterwards the youngsters parade back into town carrying small Easter egg trees in their hands. Sometimes they break into small bands to sing Easter carols door to door. In return householders give them ingredients to bake Easter cakes or other small treats. This custom has died out in many places, but is still carried on in a few rural areas.

Palm Sunday

A week later Czechs celebrate Palm Sunday, or as they often call it, Flower Sunday. This name comes from the old custom of bringing flowers and green branches to church on this morning to receive a blessing. The palm branch serves as the traditional symbol for this holiday, but because few palm trees grow in the Czech Republic people use pussy willow branches instead. Priests bless pussy willow branches, wood, and water at Palm Sunday services. An old folk tradition encouraged men to fashion crosses out of this wood which were then placed in fields as a means of blessing the crops.

Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week

According to Czech custom, spring cleaning should be tackled during the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of Holy Week. In the countryside tradition involves giving the home a new coat of whitewash, inside and out.

Maundy Thursday

The Czechs call Maundy Thursday "Green Thursday" (for more on the origins of this name, see Maundy Thursday). Indeed, tradition calls for a meal composed of herbs and green vegetables on this day. Parents encourage children to rise early and bathe in streams or rivers on Maundy Thursday. Czech folklore interprets this practice as a cure for laziness. When the youngsters come inside to breakfast they are treated to jidasky, breakfast cakes twisted into the shape of a rope. The name and shape of these breakfast buns suggests the fate of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus and afterwards hung himself. In past times people practiced a custom called hunting for Judas on Maundy Thursday (see also Judas, Burning of).

Other old customs associated with the day include throwing honeysmeared rolls into wells to insure that they would be filled with water throughout the coming year and eating honey-smeared rolls as protection from snakebite. Czech folklore asserts that eating honey prevents misfortune. In some places women rose early and swept the house free of insects before sunrise.

In accordance with Roman Catholic custom, church bells stop ringing on Maundy Thursday. In Czech villages boys march through the street with wooden rattles, replacing the chime of church bells with the clamor of wood. This noisemaking continues until the time of the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, when the bells are returned to their normal function.

Good Friday

Old Czech folklore insists that the weather on Good Friday previews the weather for the coming year. In past times people rose early on Good Friday and went to wash in the cold water of a nearby brook. Crossing the brook with one's bare legs exposed to the water was said to confer good health. Women shook out their quilts on this day, which was believed to cleanse the house of sickness. Some believed the magic of this day to be so powerful that water sprites came out to live on dry land and the earth split open to reveal hidden treasures.

Holy Saturday

Czech folklore dubbed Holy Saturday "White Saturday." Some commentators believe that the name can be traced back to the white robes worn by candidates for baptism. This quiet and peaceful day ended in church services featuring the blessing of water and candles (see also Easter Vigil; Paschal Candle; Easter Fires). In past times people extinguished all household fires on this day and lit them again from the fire kindled at the Easter Vigil service. People also saved pieces of wood scorched by the newly lit fire of the vigil service, as these logs were believed to protect the household against fire and lightning. Another old custom encouraged people to shake fruit trees on this day to encourage them to bear. Holy Saturday was also considered a lucky day to sow seeds. The weather on Holy Saturday was thought to predict the weather for the coming year.

Easter Sunday

In some churches Easter eggs are blessed and distributed to the congregation on Easter Sunday. Upon returning from church services Czechs enjoy their own version of hot cross buns called mazanec. These sweet, round Easter loaves are flavored with raisins, nutmeg, and other spices. Before baking they are decorated with a cross and sprinkled with almond shavings. In the Czech Republic, a typical Easter dinner features roast lamb or goat. A folk tradition associated with this day reminds people to create willow wands, used in the days to come, by braiding the blessed willow twigs together and decorating them with ribbons.

Easter Monday and Tuesday

On Easter Monday tradition permitted men and boys to slap women and girls with pussy willow wands. Folklorists interpret this custom as the remains of an ancient rite thought to confer vitality and health. The men and boys sang Easter carols as they went about their work, after which the women and girls were expected to gift them with Easter eggs. A girl's family would entertain any boys who came calling to whip their daughter with mazanec and a drink. On Easter Tuesday the tables turned, and custom encouraged women and girls to pursue and slap men and boys with pussy willow wands.

Further Reading

Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971.

Web Sites

A series of articles on various aspects of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter by Petr Chudoba, posted under the "Holidays and Traditions" section of Local Lingo's Czech Republic site: republic/culture

"Easter in the Czech Republic," a series of articles posted by Radio Prague, the international service of Czech Radio:
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