Throughout the markets that spring up in nearly every Moravian village around Easter time, there's a curious site. Leaning against the sides of the wooden market stalls are sticks festooned with coloured ribbons on the top. Made of braided willow branches, these sticks serve a very important role in an unusual Czech tradition.
Smacking Bums for Booze:
These holiday branches are known locally as pomlázka, and have played a role in traditional spring rituals for centuries. Because religion was generally prohibited under communism, Easter in the Czech Republic tends to be a time to welcome spring, rather than act as a typically religious holiday. So what are these pomlázka for? You may be more than a little surprised at the answer.
On Easter Monday in towns and villages all across the country, boys and men arm themselves with a pomlázka and join up with friends and relatives to pay visits to as many houses in their area as possible. Girls stay at home, and when visitors arrive, they are happy to bend over and be whipped with this Easter stick. So happy, in fact, that they will reward their male visitors with a stiff drink before the group moves on to the next house.
As the legend goes, if a woman is beaten by a pomlázka, she will remain both beautiful and fertile in the coming year, which explains why women are eager to be hit. Some, of course, make a game of it and allow themselves to be chased around the garden a few times before submitting. Though this tradition can be a little shocking to foreign visitors, Czech women would be mortified if they weren't beaten in this way, and it is all done in a spirit of fun.
The fun and games ends at noon, which for some isn't soon enough. The girls spend the afternoon nursing sore bottoms, whilst the boys spend the afternoon nursing sore heads after one too many shots of the strong Czech herbal liquor known as Becherovka.
Easter eggs also bedeck the shelves of Easter markets, though these might not be the eggs that you're used to. Czech Easter eggs, known as Kraslice, tend to be decorative rather than edible. Eggs shells are painted, dyed, waxed, and even carved into beautiful and delicate objects that make fantastic souvenirs. The word Kraslice comes from the old Czech word krásný, which in the modern language means beautiful, but in ancient times meant red, the colour of dye most often used for eggs.
Egg decorating competitions are held all over the country during Easter, and if you're lucky you'll see a display of the local winners. The craftsmanship of these eggs is absolutely exquisite, and decorating eggs in this fashion is incredibly difficult, as you'll find out if you choose to join a group at a market stall that allows you to decorate your own eggs. Be prepared to pay for more than one shell, since you're likely to break two or three before you get the hang of it!
Lamb But Not Lamb:
The traditional food eaten at Easter time in the region is lamb. However, since lamb is a somewhat unusual meat for Czechs -- and not one that most people are very fond of -- over time, the tradition of eating real lamb has been replaced by a symbolic lamb.
You'll see many stalls selling lambs made out of gingerbread or more plain bread, and for most Czechs this serves as tradition enough, leaving the real Easter meal to be a more common Czech delicacy like goulash and dumplings, or pork and cabbage, which many people prefer eating anyway.
Photo courtesy of Jialiang Gao
Easter in Moravia is likely to be very different from anything that you've experienced at home, and is a unique experience. And if you're still worried about girls getting beaten, well, in many villages women get their revenge on the Tuesday after Easter when they douse boys with buckets of cold water. As a visitor you'll probably avoid getting hit or getting wet, but don't forget to wish people Veselé Velikonoce, or Happy Easter!