Easter in the Czech Republic is a colourful mix of Christian and pagan traditions. People savor both the spiritual dimension of the holiday and celebrate the coming of spring. For this Easter special I met with food critic Petra Pospěchová to talk about Easter foods, Easter traditions, why so many people who are not practicing Christians go to Easter mass and why she, who is a believer, enjoys getting the traditional “whipping” on Easter Monday. Here are some of her thoughts on the second most popular holiday in the Czech Republic.
“The Czech Republic is not really a religious country and if we compare it with other European countries it is definitely less spiritual. But I would say that in the last few years more and more people are returning to the tradition of Lent and decide to abstain from something –it can be meat, it can be alcohol, it can be smoking, but it can also be getting rid of bad habits, some people decide they should be less angry, more patient with others and so on. So those are also ways how to observe Lent. Many people today lack spirituality in their life, and in some way they need it and although they are not religious they say to themselves OK – I will try it for 40 days and see. And then the next year they do it again – it becomes a nice custom.”
“There are two parts of Easter – one is the hungry on e –Lent and then there is the rich one. The period of Lent continues until the Resurrection. There are special foods eaten during Lent and then there is a big feast. So say on Wednesday ( we call it “ugly Wednesday” because it is the day on which Judas betrayed Jesus Christ ) people would bake traditional small cakes called Jidáše –or Judas cakes which are made from leavened dough and they have the shape of a knot or loop on which Judas hanged himself. Then you have Green Thursday –where the name itself indicates what people ate – it had to be green, spinach, nettles, they had newly-grown herbs in the house. People ate soups, salads whatever, as long as it was green.
“Friday was the hungry day, a day when healthy people should not eat at all or they should have one light meal only. Definitely no meat, light food and not much of it because that is the day when we mourn the death of Jesus and we should keep our minds away from food and focus on the spiritual. It is interesting that even people who are not religious, today if they want to fast they tend to choose Friday, so I guess it is still under people’s skin even if they are atheists.
“Saturday was also a light day food-wise, people would still be fasting, but they would be preparing food for the next day and for the night. At this point everything is building up to the big mass, the Vigil, and the moment when the bells start pealing to celebrate the Resurrection. “
“I remember visiting Wallachia last Easter with friends. We had a lovely experience in one village. We went to the local church for mass which lasted for three or four hours. We knew no one there but after the mass some of the locals came to us and said –you are travelers, on the road. You can sleep at our place if you want, but first you must definitely eat with us. They had a veritable feast set out in a house close to the church, there was a huge amount of smoked meat, home-made brandy and all kinds of different sweets. It was amazing. And the whole village came. That is the traditional way of celebrating Easter.”
“Under communism people adopted habits from the old days. In the old days most households had lamb on Easter Sunday and the poorest families who could not afford lamb baked a sweetbread in the shape of a lamb. Under communism there was no lamb to be had in the shops, so people baked something from leavened dough in the shape of a lamb, or, where I come from, in the east of the country, farmers would make it from steamed cheese. And in the communist days people just substituted the meat they couldn’t get in the shops in a similar way. The sweet lamb made of dough is a tradition most families keep to this day. They have a baking mould for the lamb and put raisins for they eyes, cloves for the nose and tie a ribbon round its neck. As I child I loved it. I would always ask to decorate the lamb.”
“There are painted eggs available in the shops, but most people still paint eggs themselves. They either buy egg-colours in the shop or use natural dyes –like red cabbage, spinach, onion peels or saffron which creates a lovely yellow colour, but is a bit expensive. Different regions have different traditions in decorating eggs, and the art is handed down from generation to generation. In some regions they use wax to create rich decorations – it is like a work of art. In some regions, the use of specific colours and details might have a connection to the regional costumes. You will find that the same applies to the sweet pies called kolache – they are also decorated in the way of the region. You will not find the same decoration if you move from village to village. Thirty kilometers away you will find a different décor. It is a local tradition that developed and people preserve it and are proud of it. It is like the family silver, I would say.”
“In the Czech Republic pagan and Christian traditions go hand-in-hand. For instance the egg, a typically pagan element, a symbol of new life is placed next to the lamb on the dinner table. Or, where I come from, on Good Friday the girls would go to a place where there is water – a pond, lake, stream or creek. And there was a saying that went “Oh clear water as you flow over me, cleanse me from my sins as if I was baptized again” or something like that. So these are sweet little things where you see pagan rituals connected with Christianity. But the pagan celebrations are definitely on Monday. From the Christian point of view, Monday has no special significance.
“This is not just specific to the Czech Republic. Even in the countries around us you would find that there are little pagan things, often regional, that are observed, that are part of Easter. I am not able to name a country in the region that observes Easter purely as a Christian holiday. These things are so mixed and so much under our skin. It is the same with the atheist Czechs – in many ways during Easter they behave very religiously and many Christians observe pagan traditions. We are central Europe –we are a melting pot, so that is OK.”
“There are two holidays when people who are not believers go to church in this country - Christmas and Easter. They go because it feels like it is part of the holiday, it is a special experience, an added dimension. And I must say, from my own experience, that on Saturday the mass is so beautiful that to witness the moment when the silence and the darkness of the Easter story bursts into the light is really wonderful. For me it is like being baptized again. People need rituals and people who do not have natural rituals linked to the seasons, the time of year, their religion, try to find them somewhere, for instance in church. They go there twice a year and it is a nice experience for them. For some that is enough.”
“Of course for the shops it is another occasion to boost sales. But in a way, it is funny you see all the Easter symbols placed in the supermarket. These things have a symbolic meaning – you should create them yourself, not buy them. In the end many of them are probably thrown away, because they are not sold. It is strange. For me this is the part I do not like. So much gets wasted. But otherwise I am fine with that –if you don’t paint eggs yourself and buy chocolate ones, that’s fine, or if you go to these Easter markets in the city, that’s fine too…they could be less kitschy, but any tradition is better than no tradition.”
“Some people just see Easter as a chance to go on holiday, but I know many households where Easter is sacred, and although the people are not religious the idea that they would go away and not spend the time together, paint eggs, “whip” their wives, daughters, aunties, grannies on Easter Monday is unthinkable. And especially in the Eastern part of the country the men really look forward to Easter Monday which is linked to alcohol and socializing. The men go from home to home in the villages to give the girls a symbolic whipping which will keep them young and healthy in the coming year and get a shot of brandy at each stop. I have seen quite strong men unable to walk after visiting all their neighbours. But it is a great social occasion. I cannot imagine being in Prague over Easter. I am used to the fact that when I open the door I see one of my neigbours who has come to give me a whipping. And if there is a newcomer to the village, it is a good way to get to know him. To be in Prague, where you don’t know people in the neighbourhood, not to be whipped, not to hand out eggs, to laugh and pour drinks that would be very strange.”
“Subconsciously we are also expressing joy at the coming of spring, which is lovely. From the gastronomical point of view I have a terrible hunger for things green, fresh and juicy. In the winter we eat heavier, less colourful foods. Now I look around and think – I want that on my plate and that and that. We see the first plants budding or flowering in the garden and have this feeling – which is irrational today – that we survived another winter. Although we now have food and heating this is an archetype feeling deep inside us – joy that spring has come round again and that the long winter months are over. ”