Friday, 13 April 2007

Easter in the Czech Republic

My first visit to the Czech Republic was just before Easter 1990 and I have enjoyed a fair few Czech Easters since. In fact I try to ensure that I am there for Easter, it is such a special time in the Republic.

Many visitors to Czecho return home with a box or two of brightly decorated easter eggs (above) - they make a lovely and light momento of your visit. On my first visit I too brought back some eggs, but I had little idea what their significance was. Nor did I know that of the switches of woven willow wands and decorated with ribbons, which I saw on sale in Wenceslas Square.

Over the years I have learnt more about these Easter traditions, but then a few years ago I was let into some of the secrets. I was invited into a small kitchen on Easter Monday where the lady of the house was preparing the eggs. She was going to show us the local tradition of egg decoration. She had blown several dozen of them - the family was going to be eating a lot of omelettes over the next few days! She needed a lot as the matriarch of a large family and as a brilliant egg decorator her eggs were going to be in great demand.

Now there are different forms of decoration I believe in different parts of the country and different traditions are passed down from mother to daughter, so the traditional decoration I was shown would not be found every where. It involved dyes, beeswax melted on the stove and a pin stuck into the end of a pencil. The process was a sort of batik on egg, with the pin used to apply the wax on the egg in a pattern. Our hostess made it look easy, it wasn't - the wax would stick to the pin or come off in a blob and my attempt looked very primitive when set against hers. Once the wax is set the egg is dyed, the wax is then removed with a warm cloth to reveal the colour beneath. This process can be repeated to create patterns in different colours. The pattern that I was shown was a traditional one of various fertility symbols - the ear of corn, a woman in traditional dress etc.

We had hardly finished dying the eggs, when in through the door burst some male friends of the family carrying the willow switches. They set about playfully belabouring the legs of all the women present with the switches. In return for being "beaten" we gave the men some eggs. Then the matriarch produced some cake and plum brandy, which were consumed by her visitors with gusto. Afterwards they all disappeared in search of other female prey, eggs, cake and alcohol. The tradition is obviously a pagan fertility rite - which is very clear when one discovers that the name for the switch is pomlazka (from pomladit "to make younger") . Of course the tradition has been upbraided by American feminists to Czech bemusement.

Later we sat in the garden and listened to the gaggles of men, now quite drunk after visiting various houses, caroling along the street below. When the doorbell rang we hid, we had no more eggs to give!

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