Masopust is one of the last Czech religious celebrations that I’ve had the chance to take part in. This year, I am honoured to be a member of the teaching staff at the PORG Grammar School in Ostrava, who presented me with the perfect opportunity to study and observe this cultural phenomenon. ‘Maso’ means ‘meat’ and ‘pust’ means ‘fast’ (as in ‘give up food’) or Lent. Etymologically, the meaning is pretty much the same as ‘carnival’.
The tradition involves having a pre-Lent feast of everything you love eating and drinking, a party where you sing,dance, eat and drink – traditionally until midnight but not even a second into the next day – followed by 40 days of being a good little Subject Of The Lord until Easter Monday, which has its own quaint traditions….
The Czech Republic is one of the least religious countries in Europe, going by its statistics for church-going, yet it seems to observe a lot more feast-days than Britain. Now obviously Britain is Anglican rather than Catholic, due to Henry XVIII’s attitude to divorce laws and naval power. But apart from divorce laws, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference between Anglicans and Catholics in terms of what the Good Lord requires of you. Catholics just seem to do it with more feasts. Anyone who is able to educate me further on such ecumenical matters is welcome to do so in the comments section below!
Masopust – The Cast Of Characters
There seems to be a standard list of participants, followed by some characters who appear frequently in Czech folklore and then everyone else is free to turn up in whatever fancy dress they like. I’m sure I saw a few recycled Halloween costumes doing the rounds and the Kylo Ren costume Our Kid set his heart on is most certainly not part of any Slavonic tradition I’m aware of!
Central Characters of masopust are the dancing bear, the priest and the judge. There are also some Wailing Women and, arguably the most important, the butcher and the curator of the local distillery.
Masopust – The Procession
The carnival procession winds it’s way through the village (or school campus, in this case) visiting various buildings. In our case, we began at the Bilingual Primary School and proceeded to the creche/after school centre. Here we were welcomed very dramatically by the headmistress in traditional clothing who gave us a traditional welcome filled with traditional blessings. Meanwhile, the sports master (wearing traditional Communist Police uniform, traditional rose-coloured glasses and waving a traditional bottle of plum schnapps) kept everyone’s spirits topped up.
Actually, the uniform and glasses were not exactly traditional but good schnapps, preferably home-made by a licenced village distiller, is the life-blood of Czech feasts and celebrations. The stuff you buy in the shops is mass-produced muck by comparison, which gives you a headache. Old people from villages swear by the good stuff. It’s known as ‘Wallachian Penicillin’ in the mountains and is often given as the reason why there are old people in villages in the mountains. It’s not a life for softies!
The masopust procession is led by a band which includes a double bass. This is later symbolically buried or hung by the neck until dead, often at midnight. Music, dancing and fun are then officially over until Easter Monday, when they come back with a vengeance!
From the creche/after school centre, the merry masopust procession went on to the International Primary School. Musicians played, the crowd danced and together they effectively blocked the road to essential public services like the bus. As it is an international school, where all lessons and subjects are taught in English, it fell to me to do the welcome speech. Obviously it had to be in Czech because the majority of the crowd were Czech.
The International School has many excellent Czech teachers who speak English like natives. There are also many excellent teachers from other countries who all speak English like natives but no Czech. Therefore it became my job to welcome everyone to the building, thank them for coming and try to introduce the concept of the Pancake Race to everyone in Czech, as opposed to my native language of English.
They all applauded politely, although I’m not convinced they all understood me. It didn’t matter though, because the Czech teacher who had supplied the pancakes hijacked a microphone off the band later on and whipped everyone up into a frenzy of enthusiasm. Pancake Races are now part of Czech culture!
Masopust Singing And Dancing
Once the serious stuff was taken care of, it just remained to sing, dance,dance, sing, eat the pork products and maybe have an ale or two. Our wonderful school chef had surpassed himself, despite the random monks hanging around his domain, and I think it’s safe to say most of us could survive quite easily without meat until Easter.
The band played all those old Czech favourites with incomprehensible lyrics that go to the tune of Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan tunes. Kids raced around full of pancake and sweets. Adults danced or hid from the kids. The atmosphere was perfect and if it had gone on until midnight, it would have been just like spending the day in a rural village, not the middle of an industrial city.
So, thank you to all the staff at PORG Ostrava for filling in this missing piece of the Czech Cultural Experience for me and for doing it in such magnificent style!
Now for 40 days of detox……