Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter from my home to all of yours

Happy Easter, everyone!

I have to tell you about the strangest, yet funniest, Easter tradition that we have! ...
The "pomlázka" is a traditional whip braided out of pussywillows (or other springtime branches) that men and boys of all ages plait on Easter Sunday (or they buy them at almost any shop around this time of the year). The pomlázka can be any length and braided from three to twelve branches.  The origin of the pomlázka tradition (pomlázka meaning both the whip and the tradition itself) dates back to pagan times.  Its original purpose and symbolic meaning is to chase away illness and bad spirits and bring health and youth for the rest of the year to everyone who is whipped.  In the past, pomlázka was not only used by boys to whip girls (um, I should clarify...they whip them on the dirty thoughts!!!), but also by the farmer's wife to whip the livestock, as well as everyone in the household, including men and children. 
Boys would whip girls lightly on the legs and possibly douse them with water, which had a similar symbolic meaning.  An Easter carol, usually asking for an egg or two, would be recited by the boy while whipping.  The girl would then reward the boy with a painted egg or candy and tie a ribbon around his pomlázka.  As the boys progressed through the village, their bags filled up with eggs and their pomlázkas were adorned with more and more colorful ribbons.
Although it may have lost its symbolism and romance and is now performed mainly for fun, this tradition is still largely upheld, especially in villages and small towns.  Some boys and men seem to have forgotten that the whipping is supposed to be only symbolic and girls don't always like that.  The reward has also changed - money and shots of plum brandy (Slivovice) are often given instead of, or in addition to, painted eggs and candy.  As you can imagine, by early afternoon groups of happy men can be seen staggering along the roads!  All that aside, Easter still remains one of the most joyful and fun holidays on the Czech calendar.

The Color Red
Red and other bright colors symbolize health, joy, happiness and new life that comes with the spring.  So paint those Easter eggs red!

All in all, Easter is a time of high spirits and happy celebrations in small villages.  I wish you all a joyful day and a very Happy Easter! 

Veselé Velikonoce!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

White Saturday

Today is White Saturday (Bílá sobota), a day when boys walk through the village with rattles on until residents at each house give them money (hmmm, if only it were so easy!)

There's so much more to White Saturday though.  It is regarded, along with Zelený čtvrtek (Green Thursday), as a lucky day for sowing. The farmers place ashes on their fields to ensure a good crop, and shake the trees, so that they'll yield a lot of fruit.

White Saturday used to be a day of peace and quiet.  Daytime church services were not held at all, and services were held instead either in the evening hours after the sun went down, or after midnight.  Only blessed candles and lights were used in the church during these nighttime services.  Because of the Virgin Mary's faith in His promise to rise again from the dead, the day is consecrated to her.

Easter picture by Josef Lada

They say that if it rains on Bílá sobota, it will rain often during the coming year.  Well, it's sunny and warm where I am... nice!

If you're in the Czech Republic on Bílá sobota, take time to stand a while in front of the church in Domaľlice, Kyjov, Blatnice, Břeclav or Vlčnov and enjoy the ceremonial costumes of the women and girls.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday comes with...superstitions!

In the Czech Republic, Great Friday (Velký pátek) is the popular name for what most call "Good Friday".  Velký pátek is a day of fasting for Roman Catholics who will not eat meat until Saturday evening after the church bells start ringing on their legendary return from Rome.

 On Velký pátek, we prepare our holiday bread (mazanec), which must not be cut or eaten until the priest says, "Christ is risen!" (Kristus vstal z mrtvých!) on Easter Sunday.  It is a universal custom to make a new loaf of bread with the sign of the cross before cutting it in order to bless it and thank God for it.  Bread baked on Velký pátek - if hardened in the oven - can be kept all year, and its presence protects the house from fire.

There are many (surprise surprise!) superstitions associated with Velký pátek.  Although Praguers have gotten away from some of the annual traditions, people in small villages still practice time-honored rituals.  These customs, dating back to at least the first century, are designed to bring health and happiness to the participants throughout the following year.

We're a superstitious bunch aren't we!?  I have to admit that I won't allow laundry to hang dry on Velký pátek, and I also won't eat meat, but these traditions are a little harder to adhere to:
  • Women carry out their quilts to air out in order to chase illnesses out of the house.
  • Some believe that water dipped before sunrise without a spoken word has healing power and will stay pure all year.
  • People get up very early on this day and hurry down to the brook (or stream... or river) where they wash themselves with cold water and then cross the brook with bare legs because they believe that this ensures good health for the entire next year.
  • People also take their daughters down to wash at the well so that they'll be pretty and well spoken for.
 It's also believed that water sprites come out onto dry land on Velký pátek.  Water Sprites are a story for another day, but if you come across this guy...

A few more interesting beliefs and superstitions are:
  • Work.  Just don't do it!!  I'm not sure if it's out of genuine respect for the religious festival, or from superstitious fears that to do it will somehow bring misfortune.  According to an old Czech saying, "Na Velký pátek zemi nehýbej", which translates to, "On Great Friday, do not move the soil."
  • Supposedly, the weather for the whole year is foretold by the weather on Velký pátek.  For instance, if it rains on Velký pátek, then the rest of the year will be dry.  Another saying is "Velký pátek deštivý dělává rok žíznivý", which means, "A rainy Great Friday makes for a thirsty year."
  • On Velký pátek, according to legend, anyone can look upon the sun without being blinded by its glare 
 There are several legends associated with Velký pátek as well, and the one I find romantic yet disturbing is this one:  High up in the mountains amidst the cliffs there is a stone figure of a maiden.  She is seated and holds in her lap an unfinished shirt, also of stone.  Eash year, on Velký pátek, at the hour of the Passion, she sews a stitch:  one year, one stitch.  When the shirt is finished, the world will end.  Everything under the sun will die, and Judgement Day will be at hand. 
Let's hope she never finishes that shirt!!!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy Holy Thursday

Today is Holy Thursday, aka Green Thursday (Zelený čtvrtek) in the Czech Republic.  It's a day of fasting where Catholics did not eat any animal products of any kind and only consumed one meal of vegetables.  Can you guess what kind of vegetables?  Yep, green ones, such as spinach or cabbage were eaten on this day so that one would stay healthy for the entire year.

 What's in a name?
Zelený čtvrtek (Green Thursday) was perhaps derived from the green mass chausable that was used on this day and which is still used today.  The bells "departing for Rome" were heard for the last time in church on Green Thursday.  They would then fall silent until Holy Saturday.  A superstition existed (of course it did... Czechs are such a superstitious bunch) that when a bell was rung for the last time on Green Thursday, one was supposed to jingle money so that one would hold on to it. 

 Another Green Thursday custom includes the boys' game of Chasing Judas and the baking of twisted spiral buns representing serpents, the symbol of betrayal.  

In some villages there are processions led by a captive Judas in a straw suit, which is ceremonially burnt at the end of the day.  When sprinkled into a clean jug of water, the ashes of Judas were believed to have special powers including the abilities to guard against fire and protect the health of livestock for the coming year.

In the evening of Green Thursday, village boys used to equip themselves with a wooden rattle (řehtačka), which was specially made for the purpose.  They formed a group and walked through the village, rattling their rattles vigorously so that the noise could be heard from afar.  
The meaning of the rattling may have been to chase away Judas.  The same procedure would repeat on Good Friday (Velký pátek).  The last rattling day was White Saturday (Bílá sobota), when the boys didn't just walk through the village, but stopped at every house in the morning and rattled until they were given money.

Happy Ugly Wednesday. Yes, Ugly.

Czechs have specific names for the days leading up to Easter and today is Ugly Wednesday.  It's possible that Wednesday is called Ugly because it's traditionally spring cleaning day, which included sweeping the chimney - and it all had to get done in one day! Another reason might be that it was the day Judas betrayed Jesus.
And of course, our traditions and superstitions...

Carpets, couches, armchairs and mattresses are carried into the open and every speck of dust beaten out of them. Women (why not men??!) scrub and wax the floors and furniture, change the curtains, wash the windows; the home is buzzing with activity.

After the interior is fully cleaned, the entire cottage is then also whitewashed on the outside as well. This has to be done quickly as everything has to be back in place by Wednesday night, glossy and shining.
This traditional spring cleaning is, of course, to make the home as neat as possible for the greatest holiday of the year, a custom taken over from the ancient Jewish practice of a ritual cleansing and sweeping of the whole house as prescribed in preparation for the Feast of Passover.
Kids finish school on Škaredá středa, which is a good idea because they need to help with all this cleaning and decorating! They also need to spend some serious time preparing for the serious days to follow, in preparation for Easter.

The Moravian houses in the Podluľí region blossom with the fleeting flowers of spring painted on the windows with soap or made on the porches or in the yards with water or sand. The window linings, wine cellar, chapel portals and rooms are also decorated with new ornaments.

There is a superstition that anyone eating honey on this day will not be bitten by serpents. 
In some places, they eat bread smeared with this honey for protection against snakebite. 

In other places they throw honey-buttered bread into wells so they will have water in them all year round.

Škaredá středa is the last Wednesday before Easter. On this day everyone is supposed to smile at each other. If they don't, the entire year will be a sad one. It is said that people shouldn't frown on this day for fear of frowning every Wednesday throughout the year!

So you know what to do...