A cold night had ghostly consequences for a civil servant and his unfaithful wife in this winter night’s tale
The holidays are the season of giving, but sometimes people give just a little too much. Also, not every gift should be unwrapped — especially if it is promised to someone else. The tale of Naked Cecilie is one of a holiday surprise gone horribly awry.
It starts on a cold and wintry starless night many years ago. The husband of the aforementioned Cecilie was working long hours as a government clerk and notary, writing out and stamping all kinds of official documents just before the end of the year. He usually worked up until midnight. Some say his name was Mr Vondřich. Like many government officials, they lived in Malá Strana, just below Prague Castle.
Mr Vondřich finished unexpectedly early one night and went home to surprise his wife. He used some extra money from his bonus to buy her a bottle of wine, a nice piece of port-flavored Gouda cheese rolled in crushed almonds and other festive foods in a holiday basket and a fancy new cheese knife.
But when he opened the door to his house, he found that the fun had started without him, and it was an unpleasant surprise party. A petty official from another government department was there, and his unfaithful wife was naked. There is a Bohemian saying that when a wife cheats on a husband, she hangs a pair of antlers on him. Mr Vondřich found himself unexpectedly donning a set suitable for a reindeer.
He already disliked the interloper, a dandy and a buffoon whom he suspected was barely literate but tried to compensate for it with curled hair, cologne and fine clothes, the latter of which were now in a pile on the floor. Seeing him in just his stockings did nothing to change Mr Vondřich‘s opinion.
Rage overtook the usually mild-mannered clerk. He hit the disrobed dandy over the head with the wine bottle. The man fell to the ground, and the clerk stabbed him dozens of times with the cheese knife. His rage was so much that he almost decapitated the adulterer.
Cecilie did not wait around to see it though. She ran to the kitchen and made her way out the window and climbed to the street, hoping to find someone to help her. But the holiday spirit was not on her side. The unfairthful wife was still stark naked, and all the doors were locked so as to keep out the bitter cold and wind.
Her frantic knocking was mistaken for just the wind rattling the doors as nobody expected company on a night like that one. People on the street were in too much of a hurry to even look up, and her calls for help were drowned in the whistling of the raging snowstorm.
She made it as far as Sněmovní Street, a short distance from Malá Strana Square, or Malostranské náměstí, where she might have gotten help at a café or pub there. Instead, she crouched down and huddled “just for a second” to try to get warm. And there she froze. She was found in the morning.
Investigators went to her home and found her dead lover, but no sign of her husband, or the wine and cheese for that matter. But the circumstances made the case clear. A shop assistant filled in the details of his shopping on the previous day and his planned surprise, and neighbors’ wives were all too happy to tell investigators of poor departed Cecilie’s infidelities.
But the story does not end there. On particularly cold and windy starless winter nights, Cecilie returns as a particularly lifelike but naked ghost to Sněmovní Street, wandering back and forth. She doesn’t like drunken people or tourists, so if you have had a few drinks it is best not to approach her.
She can give people quite a fright, and for the persistent ones she can put up a bit of a fight and scratch with her nails. She can be freed from her eternal haunting by a kindhearted “antlered” husband who voluntarily offers her a warm coat for protection. But so far, nobody has offered anything but rude suggestions.
The Czech Republic has a reputation for marital infidelity, with some research showing half the married men and a third of married women step around the bounds of matrimony. Men tend to have casual affairs, while women more often have longer-term relationships with acquaintances. Marriage itself has also gone into decline.
The concept of hanging antlers to mean cheating on a husband is widespread. Several languages such as Spanish, Portuguese and Greek use some variation of hanging horns, and it is even used as an expression in Brazil. Antlers are used instead of horns in Czech and German. The origin is not clear, though there is much speculation ranging from wealthy landowners hanging actual horns on a peasant’s house, warning the husband not to come in as he was exercising some lordly rights of visitation, to more figurative explanations about the horns being plain for everyone to see except the person wearing them, as the husband is usually the last to know.
Thunovský palác takes up much of Sněmovní Street, and it has been in government hands since 1801. For a short time, it had been a theater and Emperor Joseph II visited sometime in the 1780s. Due to the various government buildings in the area, the street is usually empty at night even though several streets nearby are busy at all hours.
The name Sněmovní refers to the Czech word for parliament. The street’s previous names were Under the Castle Ramparts and also Five Churches, although there were actually only three churches nearby.
The Five of Pentacles in The Tarot of Prague deck features a woman caught in a snowstorm, but in this case also stranded with a child. The figure comes from a statue on the Charles Bridge, while the background is a church in Vinohrady, a former area of vineyards. The card symbolizes struggles in hard times.