Excerpts taken from a lecture at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library by Director of Education Janet Stoffer
Many of the Czech and Slovak traditions and customs originated in pagan times and later intertwined with Christian religious beliefs. Springtime pagan rituals usually involved some way of manipulating nature to make sure a bountiful harvest occurred. Of course, each region and sometimes villages or families customs, changed over the centuries but below are some of the common ones.
Shroventide usually marks the transition from winter to spring and occurs in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. There are parties, dances, processions, and feasts leading up to a long period of fasting and reflection. Processions commonly include costumed characters and master of ceremonies who ask permission from homeowners to stop at their house.
Throughout the Christian Lenten season, eggs are collected and decorated. Many cultures see eggs as a symbol of rebirth and fertility and are decorated in the spring of the year. There are several methods Czechs use to create designs or dye eggs, including batik (kraslice), wheat applique, scratching a design in the dye, painting a design on the egg, pen and ink designs, and shadow imprints. Homemade dyes are made from red cabbage leaves, turmeric, onion skins, coffee grounds, berries, and flower petals.
Various egg decorating methods include: (l to r) pen drawing, batik, scratching a design in the dyed egg, wheat applique, and painting.
The second Sunday of Lent is referred to as “Roast Sunday” in which unripe grain ears or individual grain was used to prepare and preserve grain. After roasting, it was further treated and could be ground for flour or used for cooking in a soup.
The third Sunday of Lent was called “Sneezing Sunday” because on that day the Czechs held masses to avoid the plague. One of the first symptoms of the plague was excessive sneezing. The saying “God bless you,” which we still wish a sneezing person, has its origin in the fear of the plague. Plague statues were constructed and can be found today in many Czech squares to commemorate those who died and to give thanks for the ending of the plague. The superstition that sneezing “clears the head” led to the popularity of snuff; consequently sneezing and taking snuff were common on that day. People believed that the number of times one sneezed on Sneezing Sunday would equal the number of years that they would live.
Matchmaking Sunday was the fourth Sunday in the middle of Lent. This was a time for the matchmaker to visit with the groom and the parents of the prospective bride in order to discuss courting and other matters. Special cakes were baked for the visitors.
Black or Death Sunday coincides with the fifth Sunday of Lent (often known as the Passion Sunday). The focus is to get rid of winter and welcome spring. Children of the village create a doll or puppet (Morena-old mother winter) out of rags and sticks. Singing winter carols or funeral processions songs, the children parade Morena to the river and throw her into the river, saying or singing good-bye to winter. If there was no river, the Morena was burned. On the return to the village, the children would sing springtime carols and pluck a branch from a flowering tree, bringing spring back into the village. The branch is placed into a vase of water in hopes of blooms by Easter. In the Christian world, the fifth Sunday marks the beginning of 14 days of meditation and prayer devoted to the Passion of Jesus. Crucifixes, statues, and pictures in churches are draped in purple cloth as a sign of mourning.
The sixth Sunday of Lent is known as Flower Sunday. In many countries, palm leaves are blessed at the church; however, in the Czech Republic, pussy willows, wood, and water are taken to the church for blessings (pussy willows are one of the first bushes to bloom in the spring). Farmers take the blessed pussy willows and wave them over their fields in hopes of having a good crop and to ward off violent storms.
On White Sunday (the day before Easter), families are busy baking, and it is considered a lucky day to plant. Farmers put ashes on their fields to ensure a good crop. A common superstition is that if it rains on this day, it will rain often the rest of the year. Lamb-shaped cakes or Buchty are baked in molds and represent the earliest of animals born in the new year.
On Easter, all the fires in fireplaces are extinguished and a piece of firewood is taken to the church to be blessed at midnight. At the church, the firewood is lit from a blessed fire, brought home, and used to light all the hearths again. Easter dinner is not only enjoyed by family members, but their animals as well.
On Easter Monday, the pomlazka, a willow whip, is used in fun to get people ready for spring. In the morning, boys use the whip to “tap” the girls to infuse them with the trees vitality and life force. The boys will stop when they receive an egg from the girl. In some villages, the tradition reverses itself and the girls get the whip in the afternoon. If caught, the boy must return the egg to the girl. If she lets him get away, it’s a sign that she likes him, and he is allowed to keep the egg.
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