Czech Easter traditions are up there with other quaint local customs that people grow up with, like cheese-rolling, Catholicism or head-shrinking, totally unaware that:
a) They only culture in the world who practice it, and
b) All other cultures in the world think that they’re absolutely out of their minds and walk off shaking their heads and asking why such things are allowed these days.
Let me take you back to my first experience of Czech Easter traditions, in 1991. For back then I was an innocent youth, untutored in the ways of the western Slavs and … well, not for the first time was I glad I’m not a woman!
I was having breakfast with my host-family when the doorbell rang. Radka, their daughter, looked at her mother, who smiled and looked at Radka’s brother, who grinned evilly at me and got up to answer the door. There seemed to be a certain atmosphere in the room, which as a young and intrepid explorer I was learning to interpret as ‘what’s our foreign friend going to make of this, then…?’
Like a good little foreign friend, I was trying to project an aura of open-minded curiosity when all hell was let loose and the kitchen was invaded by a Barbarian Horde. I recognised the British lads who were taking part in this supposedly cultural student exchange, as well as all of our male hosts. But the others were strangers and obviously part of a pack which had its prey in sight.
They descended on Radka, and I would like to brag about how I sprang to her defence, but that didn’t happen because I tripped over my jaw and on the way down I became a spectator at the kill. They produced intricately woven and platted whips made from willow and began to give her what can only be described as a light-hearted chain-whipping.
As I extricated myself from my disbelief, they bore her off like a trophy to the bathroom, whooping and hollering in a way the English had learned to associate with football hooligans and white slavers. When I arrived, at the back as usual, I saw the ringleaders running a bathful of cold water which Radka was trying to avoid being thrown into. She ultimately failed and was soaked but I had the feeling that there was some tacit agreement going on to which I wasn’t privy.
Sure enough, I was swept up into this new world of craziness (an experience I was becoming used to as the days went by) as Radka’s mother rewarded those who had descended on her daughter with chocolate biscuits and large glasses of slivovice, that ubiquitous spirit brought out on all special occasions from birth to death. I vaguely noticed Radka writing her name on the yellow ribbon attached to the ends of many of the whips as the spirit loosened my ties to reality.
Our first victim of the day….
Amazingly, this lady is still my friend!
During the mayhem, I started to get the story from my increasingly inebriated companions. The purpose of the whips was to ensure good health in the girls and coupled with the cold bath immersion, apparently helps with bearing good, strong children. I also gathered from the girls that Radka’s tacit agreement was an integral part of the whole ceremony. Like kiss chase, the point of the exercise is to be caught, just not too easily. The greatest insult a girl can suffer on Easter Monday is to remain unvisited by midday, when the tradition reverses and the girls are allowed to beat the boys. This seems to show that she is unworthy of attention; the ugly girl who doesn’t get chased because no-one wants to kiss her. Likewise, in the run-up to Easter, the girls will brag among themselves of the expected number of visitors and their ranking on the scale of eligibility.
This lady emigrated to Italy, where Czech Easter traditions are not celebrated.
This lady is English but was generously included in the celebrations by our new friends.
As we roamed from house to house, we ran into other groups similar to ours; they were all-male, all carrying whips and all pissed. Some of the whips were very ornate and if you really want to show a girl that you like her, you not only make sure you visit her first and before anyone else does but that you make the whip yourself. You can buy cheap ones from the supermarket now for 49 Crowns but anyone can see the difference and I shall be teaching Our Kid to make his own!
Twelve o’clock finally rolled round and not a moment too soon as far as my guts were concerned. They were not raised on slivovice the way Czech guts are and they were missing something, like 200g of fat eaten before I started drinking. I staggered into the room where my new mates were receiving the last slivovices from a grateful mother and her soaking daughter just in time to see Joff inspecting the ribbon on his whip and declare, ‘Normally when I whip a girl, all she signs is the invoice!’ To the general amusement of all.
Both of these men went on to become teachers.
If you witness this for the first time, please do not call the police, as they will probably fine you for wasting their time or run you out of the country as hopelessly uncultured; just be prepared for it. If you are invited to join in, well, it depends on your gender and personal definition of ‘broadening one’s horizons’ but if you don’t you may spend the rest of your life wondering whether it would have been more fun than chasing a cheese down a West Country hill, having your head shrunk or your private parts fondled by a Priest!
The man on the left is now a prosthetic limb salesman. Weird but true.