A traditional practice involves braided willow branches called a pomlázka and plum brandy.
Easter in Europe has always been tied up with spring rituals related to fertility and birth. Bunnies are among the most prolific animals, and eggs of course hatch into new life.
The Czech Republic has an odd and now controversial tradition with roots lost in time – the Easter whip, or pomlázka. But people who grew up with it don’t consider it strange.
The practice is symbolically whipping women on the backside on Easter Monday, which is called Červené pondělí, meaning Red Monday. Easter Monday has long been a national holiday, while Good Friday only became a holiday in 2016. Easter itself is called Velikonoce.
There are several variations across Central Europe, but the general idea is boys and young men make Easter whips by weaving willow branches together and go to visit young women at their homes.
Women have several ways of opting out, depending on the specifics of where they live, so consent is now an important part of the tradition. The name pomlázka comes from the word “pomladit” meaning to make younger.
The traditional practice is said to ensure the woman will have another year of youth and beauty, some say, and is also meant to drive away the infertile spirit of winter.
It is most common in Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, and in more rural areas. In cities in Bohemia, the western part, the braided whip mostly serves as a decoration. They are common items at pop-up Easter markets in Prague and other cities.
“I don’t mind. It is for health. It is to ensure you have a healthy baby,” Nikola, a young woman who grew up near the Moravian city of Olomouc, said.
As she explained it, the tradition varies a lot across the region. “In the south, girls dress up in a skirt and white blouse. Boys put on nice trousers,” she said. “In the north, girls don’t dress up as much.” Maybe in very small villages, women might put on a traditional embroidered dress, called a kroje, but Nikola said she has never actually seen one worn on Easter Monday.
Women stay home with chocolates, decorated eggs and homemade plum brandy, or slivovice, to give to the visiting men.
“Boys and also older men go from house to house. They should have a pomlázka that they made themselves. Nice ones have a ribbon tied on the top. Some lazy boys just have a single willow branch. These days, lots of people just buy them also, but you should make it yourself,” Nikola said.
Traditionally, the boys should sing or recite a nursery rhyme type verse relating to eggs and spring themes like bountifulness and fertility. The verses vary seemingly from town to town. All the ones Nikola found on the internet as examples didn’t have the words “exactly right” while others were “just plain wrong.”
“I wouldn’t let somebody whip me if they didn’t sing the verse. They have to do something for me, otherwise there is no point. They didn’t try hard enough,” she said.
After the man sings the verse, the young woman turns around and the man takes a few whacks at her backside with the whip. “You just turn around and stand like normal. Sometimes it hurts. Usually not. A few boys hit really hard because they are into it, and it is the one day a year they can hit a girl,” Nikola said.
After the whipping, the woman gives the man a chocolate or a decorated Easter egg. Older men, who visit their friends and whip their friends’ wives, will also get a shot of slivovice.
n some areas, each woman ties a ribbon on the whip, showing how many people the boy has visited, but that is rare.
The eggs can be quite elaborate. Nikola’s family would color them naturally with juice from red cabbage and scratch designs on them with a sewing needle. People often now use commercial dyes or even stickers. “Natural colors are more traditional,” Nikola said. “My grandmother would decorate the eggs for us. She worked in a factory painting flowers on glasses, and she was good at it.” The decorated eggs are called Velikonoční kraslice.
People can start to visit as early as 8 am, and it should be over by 1 pm. “Five in the afternoon is too late. It’s done. It is for the morning,” Nikola said.
Friends, relatives and people from work are usually the ones to stop by, and the number is a mark of popularity. “One year when I was a teenager we counted. My sister and I got 30 boys. That was a lot,” she said.
But young women don’t brag to each other about the number of visitors to show off their popularity. “Nobody does this,” Nikola said.
In some parts of Moravia, women can throw water on men to prevent being whipped. “I don’t know the rules for this, though. It is a different part of Moravia. We didn’t do that in my town,” she said.
In areas where water is used, Easter Monday is sometimes called Oblévačka, meaning watering. Men who come too late, in the afternoon, can get doused in some places, for example. In other places, it means the woman simply doesn’t want that particular man to whip her, and can douse him to prevent it.
In other areas, giving a chocolate or shot of slivovice at the door can be a polite way of refusing entry to the man, thus preventing the whipping. In some places, women can whip men on leap years.
In the past, young boys would chase young girls on the village streets with the whips, and vintage illustrations of people in traditional dress show girls running or hiding. Playful running around, similar to the game of tag, still occurs. But aggressive ambushing is now considered unacceptable bullying by the modern generation.
Many areas, women and girls who don’t want to participate simply stay home on Easter Monday morning and turn away all unwanted visitors. Another tradition is less controversial, but serves the same purpose of chasing away the last vestiges of winter.
A rattle, usually a wooden device with a handle and a rotating part, is used to make noise to scare the evil spirits. Use of the rattle starts on Green Thursday, or Zelený čtvrtek, and happens all day on Good Friday, or Velký pátek.
The rattling then extends into White Saturday, or Bílá sobota, when those with the rattles, primarily boys, are finally offered a few coins to make them stop. This is usually for little boys who are too young to participate in the whipping ritual.
You can also find one more thing in the Czech Republic that most countries only have on St Patrick’s Day, and that is green beer for Green Thursday. But as Easter, a movable feast, sometimes falls far from March 17, you may want to check how fresh it is.
And while chocolate Easter bunnies and marshmallow chicks have made big inroads into popular culture, the traditional Easter treat is a frosted cake in the shape of a sitting lamb, made from a special baking mold used only once a year. The frosting can be a sugar glaze or chocolate.
You can find more curious traditions in the Christmas season, when Saint Nick comes not on Dec. 25 but on Dec 5, accompanied by and angel and devil. Increasingly, Santa’s dark counterpart Krampus is becoming popular.