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Thursday, March 20, 2008

More on the Czech Easter tradition of beating women with sticks...

Tomorrow is Good Friday and the start of Easter weekend, so it's a good time to discuss the Czech tradition of pomlazka takes place on the Monday after Easter. Here is some of (American married to Czech) Emily Prucha's article from the March 14th Prague Daily Monitor on an American woman's reaction to the tradition.

Whipping Easter into the 21st century
By Emily Prucha / Prague Daily Monitor / Published 14 March 2008

My first information about Easter in the Czech Republic, in spring of 2003, was relayed to me by my English students at the time. They told me there was no Easter bunny and no traditions involving Jesus.

At first I was surprised by this. Prague is filled with churches, primarily Catholic churches of historic significance. But in reality, the majority of Czechs are not religious, a sentiment in the country that was prevalent even before the banning of religion under Communism. In his article “God at Large” published on Christianity.com (Spring 2003), Philip Yancey outlined different phases of a country’s Christian life. The Czech Republic, Yancey claimed is in a “divorced” phase. Vying with Denmark as having the lowest rate of church attendance in the world, the Czech Republic lays only ceremonial claims to the Roman Catholic Easter tradition.

The pomlazka, as these braided willow branches are called in Czech, are...but one of the primary traditional objects of the secular Czech Easter holiday, celebrated on the Monday following the Christian Easter Sunday. The pomlazka dates back to pre-Christian times and is a symbol of health, fertility and springtime.

While this seemed lovely and benign, I was taken aback when my student Jana told me of her Easter plans to spend the weekend at her family's cottage in the countryside. “It’s going to be terrible!" she complained. "All my father’s friends will come to our house. I’ll have to hide upstairs and keep the lights off.” She groaned and shook her head. What was she talking about, I wondered to myself.

From my other students, I learned Easter Monday was generally embraced by one-half of the Czech population—men and boys, who go door to door singing Easter carols, demanding "treats" (eggs, chocolate, liquor, or a peck on the cheek) and the right to beat the women with their pomlazka whips for good luck. While my female students said they generally enjoyed decorating Easter eggs and preparing Easter sweets, none seemed too fond of the pomlazka or gendered traditions.

According to the pre-Christian tradition, good health, beauty and fertility are assured in the upcoming year to those women who are whipped. More modern tradition holds that the bearer of the “beating” comes equipped with an Easter chant, which includes the following lines, “Give us dyed eggs. If you don’t give dyed, give at least white. The hen will lay a new one for you.” Usually the whippings are a lighthearted token of the tradition. From noon on, originally, the women anointed the men with perfumed oil, but in modern times the oil treatment has more often than not been replaced with buckets of ice cold water.

After noon on Easter Monday, you can see groups of boy coming home, exchanging their experiences and showing off their loot, as well as groups of dripping wet, drunken teenagers and men stumbling home after them.

On Easter Monday 2003, my stroll through the Old Town resulted in nothing but empty vendor stands and not a pomlazka in sight. Wanting to have a better sense of the festivities, I joined my boyfriend Radek and his friends for a drive into the country. The real celebrating goes on in the small towns and villages, they assured me. After a pleasant drive we arrived at family friend’s cottage and knocked on the door. Since my trip mates were Czech and male, they were greeted with decorated eggs and shots of liquor.

Being both female and a foreigner, I presented a problematic situation. Should our hostess offer me chocolate eggs and liquor as she did her male friends? Should she offer me nothing? In the end, I was given a warm welcome and a glass of red wine. Was this group of family and friends representative of a traditional Czech Easter? I wasn’t sure. For one thing, my male friends didn’t bring pomlazkas and the females didn’t hide in the attic.


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Beth Walsh said...

I do not like the idea at all! Beating women (or anyone) with sticks is just wrong and sexist. This should not be happening to any species or gender. I am ashamed to be a human in this cruel world