Ash snows down on the crowd as they circle closer together around the bonfire in the gathering darkness, straining on their toe tips to see. The tribal drum beat quickens as the three cloaked, grey-bearded wizards set the pace of the dance. A young man with his face painted wildly swings two flaming balls attached to ropes around his body – skipping and leaping around the bonfire, now spitting flames ten feet into the air, the bones of the recently burned witch still visible on top.
Suddenly the dancer leaps towards the crowd, drops down to his knees and starts whirling the flaming balls in a circle inches from his face and the flinching, terrified faces of the children squashed into the first row to watch. Then he pops back up and dances around the fire, the little balls of flame whirling blurs chasing around his body, through his legs, crossing in front and behind his naked chest. The drums get faster and the whirling flames create solid shapes. Then suddenly he stops, bends over panting, and bows. The crowd whistles and cheers and the flashbulbs slow.
Welcome to to witch burning night.
Every year on April 30th the Czechs build bonfires and burn witches to ward off the evil spirits of winter and celebrate the coming of summer. While the Czechs are formally a Christian nation the always seem most keen on celebrating pagan traditions. This year I celebrated on Kampa, an island in Prague under the Mala Strana (Old Town) and the Charles Bridge. These celebrations can get quite big in the villages (so I hear) but since we were in the sophisticated heart of the city it remained rather tame.
The weather on Monday was a delicious 80 degrees (26C) and sunny. As I approached Kampa island over Most Legii – admiring the view the view of the castle admist the cities fresh spring greenery – I suddenly hear trumpet wafting over the water. It was jazzy trumpet, so I followed it. When I arrived on the island there was a small stage set up with a swing band in full swing. Small fires were scattered around the park for people to roast klobasa on. Hundreds of people were lolling around in the grass, drinking beer, watching children scamper, and waiting for night to fall.
As the sun began to set the jazz quited down and was replaced by a steady tribal drum beat. People began to crowd. As I pushed my way up to the front I could see that the crowd was circled around the unlit bonfire. A ring of firemen with rakes, fire extinguishers, shovels and poleaxes were keeping the crowd at bay as three men dressed as wizards banged their drums.
Soon the witches came, pressing through the crowd and past the firemen. Once inside the circle of onlookers they began to dance around the unlit fire, shaking pine bows at the crowd and smiling past crooked fake noses and grey wigs; laughing from under the brims of their pointed hats and their tattered cloaks. As the drums came upon their cresendo another witch bagan making her way through the crowd. This one an effigy with bones of sticks, organs of paper, skin of cloth and a cigar clutched in her hand. Once she reached pyramid of logs she was set on top and as the drums peaked, the fire was lit.
The witches kept dancing as the effigy burned. The crowd roared as her torso burst into flames. Strangly her skirt kept billowing up like Marliyn Monroe over the air vent long after her body and head had been spread over the crowd as ash. Once her bones had finally burnt down the drums paused, the witches stopped dancing and as one threw their pine bows onto the fire which leapt up in crackling response.
When the witches had tired a sword fight broke out between some medieval fencers (the guys who fight with medieval weaponry – it’s a very popular, if dorky, pastime here). Then the fire dancers appeared and another band came on to play bluegrass late into the night while people lounged on the lawn drinking beer, eating fried potatoes and melting cotton candy on their tongues.
Luckily the following day was Labor Day, a bank holiday which gave us all the right to celebrate to our hearts content. But also, in very Czech fashion, May 1st also has a Pagan tradition: you’re supposed to kiss a girl under a cherry blossom. But that’s a story for another day….