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Czech Republic, Slovakia: Whipping Girls and Other Easter Traditions

Easter is a very important celebration both in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, called Velikonoce – from Veliké noci or Great Nights. Although the religious connotations of Easter were suppressed under the communist regime, nowadays Czechs and Slovaks are again aware of the strong Christian background of Easter, although they regard it as mostly fun times. Many traditions are still observed, especially in villages. Several bloggers have been describing some of them.

Prague Easter
Easter by Nic Hyland, used under a Creative Commons Lincense.

Green Thursday

The Thursday before Easter is the day of the last supper, when Jesus Christ feasted with the apostles on lamb with bread and wine. Because of that, it is usual to bake lamb for Easter, but now real lamb often gets replaced with gingerbread lamb replica. The Journeys of Captain Oddsocks explains that Green Thursday is so called “because of the long green robes worn in church and the spinach and cabbage traditionally eaten on the day.” He also describes the customs of the day:

… customs include the boys’ game Chasing Judas, and the baking of twisted spiral buns representing serpents, the symbols of betrayal. In some villages there are processions led by a captive Judas in a straw suit which is ceremonially burnt at the end of the day. When sprinkled into a clean jug of water, the ashes of Judas were believed to have special powers including the abilities to guard against fire and protect the health of livestock for the coming year.

Easter Sunday

The Journeys of Captain Oddsocks describes Easter Sunday as “the big day”:

The day that Christ rose from the grave, the day of new life cleansed of suffering and victorious over death. The morning is for attending church services, (the bells having returned from Rome) and the early afternoon is set aside for a great feast. After the meal it’s time to visit relatives, and in some places to ride in a horseback procession through the countryside with blessed twigs to ensure fertile fields for the year ahead. While the men and boys are out gallivanting around on horses, girls are at home decorating eggs in preparation for the following day.

Easter Eggs
Egg Time by Semmi, used with permission.

Easter eggs are called kraslice, from the old Czech word krásný, meaning red, which was the most common colour used for dying. The designs are usually very intricate and, as The Foreigner's Guide to Living in Slovakia points out, “some eggs are even decorated by using a drill and hollowing out portions of the shell”. In fact, the techniques used to hand-paint and decorate them are truly an art form, and there are even competitions for the best kraslice and a museum dedicated to the craft.

During the weeks preceding Easter, Czech and Slovak cities have street markets selling kraslice, gingerbread lambs and other Easter items, such as the one in Prague's Old Town Square, photographed by My Czech Republic Blog.

Red Monday

Easter Monday practices, involving boys pouring water over girls and lightly whipping them with braided branches, are the most controversial of Easter traditions. As The Foreigner's Guide to Living in Slovakia explains, “if you are not Slovak and didn’t grow up around these traditions, you might find them at best—odd, at worst—barbaric.”

Easter Pomlazka
What? by Laura Appleyard, used under a Creative Commons license.

So what happens exactly on Easter Monday? The Czech Daily World explains the pomlázka whipping tradition:

Throughout the day men (usually in groups) visit their female relatives and friends and spank them with special whips. [...] These whips are hand-made from willow rods, the length ranges from 50 centimeters to two meters. There are ribbons at the end. There used to be a tradition that women would add their own ribbons so the whip would say how many women the particular man has already visited but this seems to fizzle out. And women are chased around (if they decide to make it interesting or to play along), or they just stand motionless and the male visitors would spank her butt. However, it should not hurt. Or at least not throughout the whole procedure.

The Foreigner's Guide to Living in Slovakia explains why willow branches are used to make the pomlázka (which is called korbáč in Slovak): “It is the first tree that ‘wakes’ in spring and, according to folk tradition, the fertility and vitality from the branches were thought to flow into the woman during this act.”

Czech Mate Diary explains the exchange taking place during the whipping:

If you were one of the first houses the mob visited, you were lucky: the guys are still kind of sober, kind of polite and kind of mellow. You let them into the living room – or better – just a hallway, give them some refreshments, offer them more vodka and let them “spank” you. If they still have their egg baskets, you would also stuff couple of eggs in them and if you are lucky they leave afterwards.

Pomlazka whipping
Pomlázka whipping in the village of Hříchovice, near Pilsen.

Tischler's in Prague posted an article from the Prague Daily Monitor on an American woman's reaction to the tradition:

…men and boys [...] go door to door singing Easter carols, demanding “treats” (eggs, chocolate, liquor, or a peck on the cheek) and the right to beat the women with their pomlázka whips for good luck. While my female students said they generally enjoyed decorating Easter eggs and preparing Easter sweets, none seemed too fond of the pomlazka or gendered traditions.
[...] Being both female and a foreigner, I presented a problematic situation. Should our hostess offer me chocolate eggs and liquor as she did her male friends? Should she offer me nothing? In the end, I was given a warm welcome and a glass of red wine.

In addition to whipping, Easter Monday also involves dousing. According to The Journeys of Captain Oddsocks, in some regions the girls get their revenge on Tuesday when it’s their turn with the whips, while in other regions they return the rejuvenation with a bucket of ice-cold water. In Slovakia, however, it seems that it's the girls who get watered on Easter Monday. The Foreigner's Guide to Living in Slovakia explains the ritual:

…it’s customary for the girls and women to stay at home while the boys and men, usually dressed in nicer clothing and sometimes even in kroj – traditional costume, go from the residence of one relative to another, bringing greetings and intending to oblievat’ – to “water” the female relatives present. Water is the symbol of life and the pouring of water is a gesture meant to bestow year long health and beauty. Some use a spray of perfume instead of water, or both.
Isn’t that nice? The women folk get watered and whipped while the men get fed and given drinks, and the little boys are given money or chocolate in exchange for their work of the day. Just so you know, being watered can range from having a teaspoon of warm tap water dribbled over you (my personal experience), to a bucket of frigid well water thrown at you.

  • Irene Zemanova

    Thank you, Elia, for the writing of this interesting article and adding my photo. You put it very nice. Just some more info. Pomlázka is from the word omladit – to make younger or keep women young throughout the whole year. If he who whips is not cruel the whole thing is very funny and cheerful especially at the villages where you can hear happy laughter and rush of girls and women escaping from hilarious guys. Irene aka Semmi

  • http://www.czechmatediary.com tanja

    I love your pictures! And thanks for linking to Czechmate diary! It was interesting to read all of the other quoted articles regarding the Czech Easter. I was pleased to see that many of these authors actually had the same opinions when it comes to “pomlazka”! In theory, it is a nice,sentimental tradition but in practice it just doesn’t work because: men + alcohol + Easter = trouble (most of the time).

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  • http://motls.blogspot.com/ Luboš Motl

    By the way, the comments about whipping are misleading. Because 2008 is a leap year, the role of boys and girls was actually switched. Girls were beating boys, this year.

  • http://optonline.net sixofthebest

    I think the czech custom of whipping naughty women on Easter, is fantastic. I wish this custom would migrate to the rest of the world.

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  • nameless person

    after reading this article all i have is three words. this. is. sick. in all respect the the slovakian traditions, as a women of canada i have the right to freedom of speech, so this is what i have to say. of all the things in the world that make me want puke, this is one of the sickest. the way some cultures treat women are absolutely sick. first of all beating or whipping ANYONE is wrong, especially when the right to do so is specified by gender. second (this one really makes my skin crawl) that men are rewarded for putting down women. sick. now here is my question… why must we have such traditions? in many other places in the world, women and men are equal. one is not raised higher than the other. so in other countries this holiday would be quite an insult, and considered, horrid, even evil. in those countries, on easter people give out eggs and chocolate and have dinners with family ex., and is a happy holiday to share with friends and even people you may not know. why must a holiday be so unpleasant in other places?

    • Míra

      Dear nameless,
      I can see that you do not understand what tradition means. Nobody takes right of speech, nobody punish, nobody is higher than other. It is gentle whipping but I admitt that you can find some excesses mainly because of alcohol. If you will have discussion with local woman you will see that 8 of 10 like this tradition. The act of whipping is not pounishment is it act to keep youth and health for the rest of year. It is very easy condemn something without basic knowledge.
      And what I mean that sickest is ???

      http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/World-News/Hunters-Begin-Killing-338000-Seals-In-Newfoundland-Canada-For-Use-In-Beauty-Products-And-For-Pelts/Article/200904215258928?f=rss

      Why have to be people so stupid doing thinks like that ???

      People should clean up in front of their own doors before they start criticize others…

      Ouughh … aren´t you from the part of world where advert for Coca cola company is the biggest tradition???

      With love
      Míra

    • MaeD

      Dear Nameless, I’m a Czech woman and I don’t consider it sick. It is not physical harm, it is very symbolic and actually fun. Woman always has a choice say no, play along or don’t open the door at all. It doesn’t make you second rated citizen, abused woman or whatever you’re thinking. The “whipping” as you call it is just gentle light swat on your behind no more than a tickle. I haven’t seen a man who’d dare to hurt me. You’ve got it all wrong, it is not about putting down woman, is about blessing them. The wood the whip is made of represents youth and fertility, it is supposed to bestow it upon you. The eggs and drinks what are given to men after the “whipping” are
      woman’s ways to say thank you for coming and wishing me long fertile and
      youthful year. Another thing, are you opposing when in the church you get sprinkled with holy water? Symbolism as well. This is simply old pagan tradition dating prior Christianity. I can assure you, this is not unpleasant holiday at all and Czech and Slovak Republic belong to those many countries where woman and men are equal. Sometimes I just can’t believe how people can judge something like you’re just doing without actually witnessing it, or say something bad about country without being there.

  • nameless person

    im sorry if i came on a little too strong. and i was very miss informed a friend of mine miss interpreted the tradition to make it sound much worst than it really was. though i still don’t excactly agree with this tradition. i still do respect it. with apologies, nameless person :)

  • Peter

    dear writer
    your description of this tradition of easter was very god accept few mistakes.

    kraslice did not came from old cech word, because centuries is this word in slovak language to. Original meanings kraslice become from word krasny what on bouth langvages mean pretty or nice. Simply sad, eggs are made more pretty or beautifuland after that become the kraslice. And word cerveny means red. On the picture is all kraslicas paint on red only, i can make you sure, the red is only one from many common colors used in this process of art.

  • anonomus

    There’s actually some funny clips on the internet of both boys and girls doing the soaking and smacking. It seems cute compared to how i first read about it.

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