One of the first nice days of spring is an excuse to roast sausages and burn a witch
Witches’ Night sounds a bit ominous, but in Bohemia and much of Central Europe it has become something of a children’s holiday, a small-scale Halloween.
Superstitious celebrations were frowned on in the communist era, but like masopust (the Czech version of Mardis Gras) it has had a resurgence since the Velvet Revolution.
The celebration in the Czech language is called pálení čarodějnic (burning of the witches) or čarodějnice (the witches) and falls on the night of April 30 to May 1, halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
The main feature of the celebration is a bonfire with a burning effigy of a witch, representing the infertile spirit of winter. The rising smoke is the visible proof of winter’s infertility leaving the land, according to this interpretation.
The witch effigy is usually a wooden broom with a papier-mâché face and a pointed hat. It doesn’t represent any historical figure or specific witch, just the idea of the end of the infertility.
Historically, the fires should be on a hill but it is not a strict requirement. Organized festivals in local parks now have costume contests for children, local bands and similar entertainment. While girls are in witch outfits, boys can be seen dressed up as Batman, Spider Man or whatever action character is popular at the time. Larger celebrations have become quite commercial, with corporate sponsored tents and stands offering beer, liquor and food.
For family-oriented celebrations, the main events are usually over by sunset as you don’t want to keep the little ones up too late.
Some celebrations are less organized. Young adults often make a fire in the local woods, but there is no real witch-related element, just some drinking by the fire on a still-chilly evening, cooking sausages and telling random stories. So far, there has not been a widespread pagan revival in the Czech Republic, which remains one of the least religious places on earth.
May 1 is a national holiday in much of Europe, so most people can enjoy a late night. But lovers should be sure to go out and kiss under a blooming cherry tree on May Day — as the infertile witch is gone and the fecund spirit of spring now rules. May 1 is also a day for political rallies, so any sense that fire has exorcised evil from public is debatable. It is not so common in Bohemia, but in neighboring Moravia there are Maypole dances in villages on May 1.
While way back in history there may have been some sense that Witches’ Night had to do with gatherings of witches in the mountains, it is no longer associated with that.
Some sources claim the fires way back when were to protect against witches, who came out in force after dark on April 30, just like the unhappy spirits that wander on Halloween. The smoke is said to drive away them away. Another alternative is that caves and other places that are inaccessible throughout the year will magically be open and offer up their hidden treasures. Mystical blue fires are said to mark the entry ways and lead people to the treasures.
In German speaking countries, the night is called Walpurgisnacht, associated with Saint Walpurga, an eighth century abbess whose feast is May 1. The Czech version of Walpurgisnacht, which comes out to Valpuržina noc, is not commonly used anymore.
Taking a folk holiday and tacking a Christian saint onto it has long been a way of co-opting existing festivals and anchoring the spread of mainstream religion.
The idea of Witches’ Night has been an element of popular culture.
Gustav Meyrink, an Austrian writer long based in Prague, wrote a novel in German called Walpurgisnacht. It was written in 1917 and takes place at the same time. The novel is filled with mystical allusions and the search for a higher level of spirituality, a theme in much of his work. The title is a bit of a metaphor, as the novel climaxes in a bizarre peasant uprising in Prague Castle.