Easter in the Czech Republic 2020
As the Coronavirus spreads around the world, it is now more than certain that most of us are going to celebrate Easter under lockdown, far from family and friends, without the usual Easter visits and travels. Maybe you were planning to spend Easter in Prague, but you couldn’t make it, or you’re just curious about Czech Easter traditions. In any case, read on and see what Prague has to offer during Easter.
Whatʼs it all about?
The Czech name for Easter is Velikonoce. It is a compound of 2 words: veliké and noci, literally “great nights.” This is a reference to the night during which, according to the New Testament, Jesus Christ was resurrected. This might make you think that Easter in the Czech Republic is all about religion, but that is actually not the case, at least not more than in any other culture.
In fact, the Christian aspect of Easter was largely suppressed here under the communist regime, which is part of the reason why Czechs might seem to be less serious about the whole thing than other nations. When compared to England, for example, where kids get to enjoy 2 weeks of holidays from school, the Czech ones only get Friday–Monday off, with Friday being a recent addition to make the country look more religious in international context.
Moreover, most of the local customs go back to pagan and pre-Christian times. Easter is thus not only an acknowledgment of the great mystery of resurrection but also a celebration of spring, youth, and fertility.
One thing you will see all over the city are the Easter eggs, so-called kraslice. Czechs might be somewhat relaxed about other traditions today, but they are very keen about their kraslice. These colorful hand-painted eggs are actually representations of different regions of the country. They are decorated using various materials, from food coloring to watercolors, onion peels, straw or beeswax. You will find them all throughout the Easter markets.
For most families with kids, egg painting is a playful yet important part of their preparation for Easter. They would dye hard boiled eggs that will be given out and consumed on Easter Monday, and paint symbols and ornaments on empty eggshells that will become kraslice. These are actually painted first and when the design is complete, tiny holes are made on both ends of the egg and the contents are blown through one of the holes.
Another indispensable Easter object is pomlázka. The name comes from the verb pomladit which means to make something or someone younger. Pomlázka is made of willow twigs braided together and it is supposed to bring health and youth upon being spanked with it. As of today, boys are expected to symbolically beat girls with pomlázka, so that they stay young and beautiful until the next year. In the past, it was the housemaid who was in possession of pomlázka and beat the whole family including their livestock with it. This might seem a rather strange habit, but it makes sense when put into the context of fertility rituals that spring celebration was usually connected to in pagan traditions.
Apart from pomlázka, willow twigs might also be used as a decoration. Some families would simply put a couple of these into a vase with water and wait until they bloom. If they do, it is supposed to bring good luck and wealth upon the family. You might also tie a few Easter eggs with ribbons to these twigs and you end up with something like a Christmas tree – Easter edition.
Another obscure item for decorating is barley sprouts called osení. If you plant some wet barley in earth or cotton wool around 10–14 days before Easter, you will get a nice flower pot of green sprouts somewhat reminiscent of grass but much nicer. Hide a few kraslice in there and voilá! – you have another traditional Easter decoration.
What about the food?
Of course, food! Although Easter is not such a big thing with food as, for example, Christmas, there are still some traditional products you will want to try while visiting the country at this time. The most important is probably beránek – a baked lamb. Donʼt get misled, this has nothing to do with meat. Instead, beránek is made of gingerbread or curd dough, usually mixed with raisins. It is a symbol of Jesus Christ as he was made a scapegoat for the sins of others, but that will probably not be the first association you will make while chewing on this delight.
If not beránek, most families will make mazanec. It is something like a sweet bread with dried fruits inside and topped with almonds. Trust me, there is nothing like hot mazanec fresh from the oven! In case there is any leftover dough, we would braid it so that it looks like little pieces of rope and bake it too. Itʼs called jidášky and it is supposed to symbolize the rope that Judas used to hang himself on. If this does not chase Judas away from the house, then nothing will.
You should also make sure to stock your house with enough hard boiled eggs, treats, and chocolate bunnies. This is all your Easter diet. Just kidding, we actually give these out to whoever comes around to beat us with pomlázka. That is a fair trade for some youth and fertility, isnʼt it?
And finally, some meat, because that is what Czech cuisine is all about. Just not on Great Friday, thatʼs the day of the great fast, in the Christian tradition at least. Apart from that, you may enjoy a lot of lamb meat (the actual one, this time) and, in the East of the Czech Republic especially, also smoked meat, which goes very well with all the hard boiled eggs.
The Easter week schedule
If you are a devout Christian, start your Easter preparations 40 days before Easter– on Ash Wednesday. That is when you are supposed to start fasting and focusing on your faith. Although I havenʼt met a single person who would actually do that.
For most people, Easter does not begin until the so-called Holy Week. This starts with Blue Monday and continues to Grey Tuesday and Ugly Wednesday. In the past, children would get off school on that day and stay home until the next Tuesday, but the Communists made sure to do away with this laxity. Not even Green Thursday is enjoyed at home today.
The official national holiday begins on Great Friday, the day of Christʼs crucifixion. Boys would go through town with wooden rattles called řehtačky to chase away bad spirits. You will rarely come across this tradition anymore, maybe in certain regions of Moravia.
White Saturday is the day of great spring cleaning of the house and preparing for the actual Easter. That includes painting the Easter eggs, decorating the house, kneading the dough for mazanec or baking beránek. Boys would also hunt for willow twigs and make their own pomlázka, but that is not considered cool anymore. Instead, they buy them at a supermarket today.
Easter Sunday is full of joy over the resurrection. This can be demonstrated in two ways – either you join the Sunday service at a church or you host a great feast at your house with plenty of meat and beer to stuff your belly. Can you guess which one of these is more popular in this country?
And then thereʼs Easter Monday, the day you have been preparing for all this time. Folk traditions prevail over the Christian ones on this day. Groups of boys go from house to house spreading youth and fertility with their pomlázka and singing Easter carols. Although it is supposed to be a symbolic act, some boys take it too far with the spanking, which makes many girls nowadays hate this celebration. And no wonder, the romantic subtext seems to be all gone!
In any case, treats and eggs are expected as a reward for this beating. An egg is itself a life-giving symbol of fertility and resurrection, so the boys are not exempt from that privilege. After a certain age, however, eggs no longer seem to be attractive for them and they collect money or shots of alcohol instead. Donʼt be surprised if you meet gangs of young men staggering drunk already in the early hours of the afternoon on Easter Monday, especially outside of Prague or in the suburbia. You donʼt have to be afraid of them though, nobody wants to ruin their good Easter mood by any unnecessary conflicts.
How to enjoy Easter in Prague
Of course, as 2020 is cancelled, read this as an inspiration for the future.
Easter is a popular time to visit Prague and the city tends to get a bit busy on that particular weekend. If you are planning to be around at this time, better plan your stay in advance. As I have already suggested, it might even be a good option to go outside of the city for a day or two during the Easter weekend. You donʼt have to go far to witness some of the folk traditions – you will probably meet gangs of boys with pomlázka at the outskirts of the city.
The best way to experience this celebration in the center of Prague is through the various Easter markets throughout the city. The central market is located in the Old Town Square, just a few steps from the astronomical clock. You will probably want to begin here. Apart from typical Easter objects such as kraslice or pomlázka, you will find loads of traditional Czech products, especially food and drinks.
Other markets will be held on the exhibition grounds in Holešovice, in the square near Anděl metro station, at the Prague Castle, in Náměstí Míru or at the right bank of the Vltava River called Náplavka.