Easter is a special time in the Czech Republic. This time last year I found out just how special. It was a few minutes before the start of a class. I had arrived early and was sitting in my classroom preparing for the lesson. One student – a middle-aged man – came in early, sat down and we began a casual conversation as I absentmindedly rustled through my materials for the coming class.
Me: “How’s it going?”
Student: “Good morning.”
Me: “How are you?”
Student: “I am good.”
Student: “And how was your weekend?”
Me: “Yeah, good, didn’t do much. And you?”
Student: “I was on the cottage.”
Me: “Oh nice, and what are you doing this weekend?”
Student [with a wicked grin spreading across his face]: “This weekend I will beat my women.”
Yup. My eyes came up from my papers and my jaw dropped. “Excuse me?” But there was no mistake, for Easter weekend, in villages throughout the Czech Republic, they beat their women. Okay, so it’s not as bad as all that.
The tradition is practiced rurally but since most city dwellers have ties to the countryside it is well known, if not beloved. On Easter weekend the men begin by braiding freshly cut willow bows into a pomlázka, a switch. Then on Easter Monday (not Sunday) the pomlázka is used to whip the women in the legs. The act has pagan roots and is supposed to bestow beauty, youth and fertility on the women in the coming year. Mothers, daughters, grandmothers are all beaten and if this wasn’t enough, the women are then supposed to reciprocate by giving the men either an egg (fresh, hard boiled or painted-blown eggs are acceptable) and/or a shot of liquor.
Traditions are different in every village but on on Easter Monday the men wake up early and whip their women folk with the pomlázka. Once the women are up groups of men gather and go from house to house throughout the village, visiting friends and family, whipping the women and drinking shots. The women stay at home receiving guests (and whippings) and serving refreshments. As the men enter each house they must recite a rhyme or a song, then beat the women of the house, and then drink a shot. Usually these festivities end sharply at noon, leaving the men wildly drunk.
The variants that I’ve heard of include: women beating the men on leap years (this year), women soaking the men with water if they come to the door after noon, and some where they drink all day. In some parts of the country there is a water element to the holiday. Here they either wake the women with a bucket of cold water (rise and shine!), drag them down to the nearest body of water and dunk them in (it’s okay to break the ice beforehand) or simply take them up to the shower.
These traditions seem to be falling out of favor with an increasingly young, urban population who feel less connected to the community. I, however, will be incorporating these traditions into my future celebrations and look forward to annually explaining myself to the police.
“It’s a Czech tradition, officer. I swear!”