In Bohemia, Easter is the culmination of a forty-day period of fasting (Lent) which begins on Ash Wednesday after a festive and merry carnival (Shrovetide). In the Catholic liturgical calendar, Ash Wednesday is on the Wednesday before the first Lenten Sunday and marks the beginning of the fasting period. On Ash Wednesday, ash from palms branches blessed on Palm Sunday the previous year is used for the priest to mark crosses on worshippers’ foreheads. Many superstitions were connected with Ash Wednesday.
Each Sunday in Lent has its own special name:
- Invocabit – First Lenten Sunday
This day is associated with many folklore customs and habits since mediaeval times, several of which were given special names – Black, Pea Sprout, Sack and Fox.
- Reminiscere – Second Lenten Sunday
This is also called Roast Sunday because on this day kernels of grain were roasted to prepare a special dish called pražma. Sometimes it was also called “Sootsweeping” Sunday based on the general spring cleaning carried out that day.
- Oculi – Third Lenten Sunday
Many superstitions about health and longevity surround this Sunday. People wished one another not to sneeze as they believed that sneezing started plagues. In contrast, there were others who believed that if someone could manage to sneeze quickly three times in a row, they’d be healthy as a horse for the rest of the year.
- Laetare – Fourth Lenten Sunday
Also called Groomsman’s, when the groom and his best man walked to the home where they wanted to return on Easter Monday to ask the bride for her hand in marriage. This tradition remained in place in Bohemia all the way up to World War I.
- Judica – Fifth Lenten Sunday
Mistress Death, a straw figure that embodied all of the evil that winter had brought, was carried out of the village that day. Villagers walked through the entire town with Death before throwing her into a stream outside of town.
- Palmarum – Sixth Lenten Sunday
Also Palm Sunday. A celebration of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem. Willow and catkin twigs are blessed, while others carry a líto – green sprigs decorated with coloured ribbons and white or coloured eggshells. In some areas it is believed that people should wear something new that day.
The last week of Lent was called Passion, Holy or Greater Week. Immediately after Palm Sunday, homes launch a major spring cleaning and prepare for the important holidays.
The name comes from the fabric hung in churches that day.
There were no special customs on Tuesday.
Chimneys were swept this day. Some areas also called this day “Ugly” Wednesday. People were not supposed to frown; otherwise they would be ugly every Wednesday of the year. This is the day Judas betrayed Jesus – he frowned at him.
The focal point of Easter is in the following three days: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, which have been integrated into the Three Sacred Days (Triduum sacrum) since Vatican II.
Holy “Green” Thursday
The name is probably derived from the green chasuble that was used on this day. People were supposed to eat green food (spinach, nettles, various types of cabbage) in order to be healthy the rest of the year. The church bells ring for the last time – they “fly off to Rome” and remain silent until “White” Saturday. Instead of bells, clappers and rattles sound through the air. People ate pastries covered with honey (jidášky) which are rather similar to hot cross buns. During Holy Thursday mass, the bishop and monastic clergy washed the feet of twelve elderly men just as Jesus washed the apostles’ feet at the Last Supper.
Good Friday (also called “Painful” and “Quiet”) is a day of deep mourning. Jesus was interrogated on Thursday night and into Friday morning, and on Friday Jesus was sentenced to death and crucified. No mass was held, only texts and songs were read during services. People walked on the Way of the Cross in remembrance of Jesus’ suffering and pain. It was believed that the earth would open to give forth treasures. On this day people woke up before dawn to wash in the stream or river to protect themselves against disease and pain. People did not work on this day, nor did they drink milk, eat eggs or smoke. It was not allowed to wash clothing this day as laundresses said that they would be soaking the laundry in the blood of Christ.
Holy “White” Saturday
The last day of fasting was “White” Saturday, when Jesus’ body was removed from the cross and entombed. In terms of liturgy, only night-time services were held. In the morning, fires were set and consecrated before churches (the burning of Judas) and homemakers lit small pieces of wood from the fires to carry home. That evening, everyone in the church welcomed Jesus who rose from the dead. A monstrance bearing the Eucharist and a statue or painting of Christ was lifted from the Holy Sepulchre, and these were carried in procession celebrating the Resurrection. This is the height of the Easter celebration – the Vigil. The Czech name for Easter, Velikonoce, comes from the name of this celebration – Great Night (Veliká noc). The bells “return from Rome” and ring out.
Sunday – Easter Feast Day
Easter dishes were blessed on the first Easter Sunday – Easter lamb cake, sweet bread, bread, eggs and wine which would all help get people used to fattier food after the long fasting period. People would eat Easter stuffing, mutton, lamb and pigeon that had been blessed in the church. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ – Celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection.
On Easter Monday, also called “Red” (from the colour of the eggs women gave out), Whipping or “Pomlázka Feast” Monday, men set out to visit local women in a local custom called pomlázka. Originally a magical pagan ceremony intended to ensure fertility and good health, adults participated in this custom where the men whipped the women with a freshly plaited birch stick (pomlázka) and poured strong, vital water over them in order to drive sicknesses out of them, and in return the women would reward the men with decorated eggs as a promise of future, yet still hidden life.Later the day mainly became a source of entertainment for children as well as adults. To this day boys walk from house to house visiting girls with their hand-plaited or purchased pomlázka decorated with vibrantly coloured ribbons. Visitors young and old receive decorated eggs, small sweets or Easter gingerbread from the whipped girls. The Easter rhymes that usually accompany the entire ritual are also noteworthy.
The history of Easter stretches far back into the past. The holiday arose from the Jewish holiday Passover or Pesach (the source of the Russian and Greek names for Easter paskha), celebrating the deliverance of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Christians tried to differentiate their celebration of Easter from the Jewish holiday and thus focus on celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.
Similar celebrations can be found among the pagans who celebrated the arrival of spring that time of year. Their celebration was accompanied by a large number of customs and rituals which have remained practically untouched all the way up to the present day. The etymological meaning of the Czech word for Easter, Velikonoce, can be found in the name veliká noc – the Great Night celebration (which is still celebrated in the Orthodox Church). The German and English names of Ostern and Easter recall the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring and fertility, Ostara, the counterpart to the Slavic mythological character Vesna (“spring”).
Determining the date of Easter
The First Council of Nicaea in 325 decided that Easter should fall on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the spring equinox. As a result, Easter is a moveable feast day which can occur anytime between 22 March and 25 April. The latest Easter was 25 April 1943; the earliest was 22 March 1818. Prague astronomer Johannes Kepler was the first in the Czech lands to draw up tables calculating the dates of Easter.
Most Easter customs are based on the essence of a peasant’s life in the farming villages. These were celebrations of spring, when nature came back to life and various ceremonies were needed to ensure a good harvest and fortune in the upcoming farming year – in the folk tradition of Easter. The Christian and urban traditions of Easter were different. The Czech birch whip or pomlázka remained essentially untouched by the Christian Easter. The most popular traditions are colouring eggs and plaiting pomlázka.
- Easter lamb cake
To this day, Czechs bake cakes in the shape of a lamb as a symbol of renewed life and the victory of life over death. It also symbolises Christ. When John the Baptist saw Jesus, he called: “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!” Jesus appears in the role of the Redeemer, delivering people from sin so they can attain forgiveness and salvation. It is hard to tell from historical records whether the Easter lamb was made of meat or bread. In all likelihood, roast meat and sponge cake were both eaten.
- Decorated eggs (kraslice)
Decorated eggs are a magical, age-old object. Decorated eggs are prevalent not only in the Czech Republic, but throughout Europe. As a symbol of life, fertility and growth, supernatural powers were ascribed to eggs which only intensified when they were painted or decorated with ornaments. Because the main cultural importance rested not so much in giving the egg as in eating the contents, boiled eggs have been decorated for as long as anyone can remember. The custom of eating the egg is probably associated to the long egg-free fast, so people eagerly awaited the end of the fasting period. The custom of decorating Easter eggs (kraslice) then arose in connection with folk traditions and differs from region to region. This tradition originated as recently as the late 19th century. Many techniques were used to decorate eggs, including wax batik, wrapping, scratching or decorating with straw.
Going visiting with a plaited birch whip is one of the oldest Easter customs in the Czech lands and remains firm in place to the present day. A pomlázka is a stick that girls and women were whipped with in order to “get younger” (pomlázka could be loosely translated as an “object to make one younger”). The plaited birch stick took different names and appearances in different regions. Being able to plait a pomlázka was an essential skill. Usually several willow rods were plaited together. In the end the stick was usually decorated with ribbons and bands. Pomlázka is also the name of the Easter Monday visit along with the presents that the male visitors received from whipped girls and women. Going visiting with a pomlázka is a tradition that has remained in place to the present day, and this tradition likewise features several regional variations.
- Sowing grain
A symbol of the start of farm work, usually grass or a type of grain is sown in a shallow bowl of dirt, left to sprout and then decorated with Easter eggs.
Information courtesy of praguewelcome.cz
Two opposites collide on Easter – a strict fast and a copious abundance of food. The fast lasts until the end of Holy Saturday; then it’s time for the absolute opposite to take over.The following foods are featured on every well-stocked Easter table:
- 1 – 1.5 kg cooked meat (about half baked pork and half stewed beef)
- 10 eggs
- 1/2 l milk or broth
- 10 rolls
- parsley or young nettles
Instructions: Mix the egg yolks well in milk or broth. Cube the rolls. Pour the egg mixture over the cubes and add grated nutmeg, cubed meat, green parsley or chopped young nettles, and salt. Beat the eggwhites till stiff and gently fold into the stuffing mixture. Grease a deep baking tray and sprinkle with breadcrumbs. Now spread the stuffing out onto the tray, dot with butter and bake.
Easter lamb cake
- 1/4 kg butter or margerine
- 170 g sugar
- 1 packet (20 g) vanilla sugar
- 4 eggs
- 150 g pastry flour (type 1)
- 100 g corn starch
- 1 t baking powder
- zest from one lemon and one orange
- 2 T rum
Instructions: Beat the sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Slowly add the eggs, beating continuously. Sift the flour, corn starch and baking powder together and, one spoonful at a time, add to the batter. At the end add the zest and rum. Grease and flour a lamb baking form. Pour the batter into the form and carefully place in the oven to bake for about an hour. Half the time bake at Mark 3 (high), a quarter of the time at Mark 2 (medium) and the rest of the time at low. Remove the lamb from the oven and let stand about five minutes before turning it out of the form. Dust with sugar or glaze: In a double boiler, beat one egg white, 100 grams powdered sugar and the juice from one lemon.
Mazanec – Easter sweet bread
- 1 kg pastry flour (type 1)
- 60 g yeast
- 160 g sugar
- 200 g butter
- 4 egg yolks
- pinch of salt
- 3/8 litre milk
- 100 g raisins
- almonds for decorating
Instructions: Start the yeast. In another bowl, beat the butter with the sugar and egg yolks. Mix the salt into the flour and add to the butter mixture with the yeast starter and milk. Mix in the chopped almonds and raisins. Knead the dough on a floured surface and let rise (at least two hours in a warm place). Form the dough into a round loaf and place on a baking sheet. Decorate with almonds and brush with a beaten egg. Bake approx. one hour at 200°C.
Jidáše – Sweet Buns
- 1/2 kg pastry flour (type 1)
- 50 g sugar
- 2 egg yolks
- 70 g margerine or butter
- 20 g yeast
- egg to brush rolls
Instructions: Start the yeast. Beat the sugar, butter and egg yolks. Add a pinch of salt, flour and the yeast. Make a firm dough and let rise. Now cut the dough into pieces and roll the pieces out into thin stips. Roll the strip into a coil, brush with an egg and bake. Spread honey on the rolls while they are still warm.
Roast Easter lamb
- Lamb rump roast
- 200 g butter
- 100 g flour
Instructions: Wash, dry and salt the rump roast. Melt butter in a roasting pan. Place two skewers on the bottom of the pan and place the roast on the skewers fat side down so that it is not directly touching the pan. Roast in a hot oven, basting the meat often. After a while, turn the meat over, pour hot water into the bottom of the pan and let roast till done. Slice while still warm. Add flour to the jus in the bottom of the pan, dillute, bring to a boil and pour through a sieve. Earlier lamb was usually eaten with bread.
Pu?álka – Sprouted peas
Pu?álka is sprouted peas that have been quickly satueed in butter and either salted and peppered, sweetened or served with raisins.