Prague, Czech Republic – April is coming to an end and temperatures are finally rising.
At the prospect of winter’s end, most of us will joyfully surrender to trivial summer thoughts. But while we nonchalantly ponder over the prospects of beach, tans and ice-cold cocktail drinks, Czechs will be miles away from these worldly banalities, obsessed with one unshakeable and unwavering thought: witches.
In a few days, one of the strangest and most mind-boggling Czech traditions will take place. And just to set things straight, we’re talking about the country where people eat carps on Christmas and where men hit girls, women and grannies with braided sticks on Easter – ok, maybe not grannies. Still, the bar is set pretty high.
Known as pálení čarodějnic, or “burning witches”, this centuries-old tradition takes place every year on April, 30th. All over the country, Czechs come together and gather around improvised bonfires to watch… witches being burnt. Well, kind of. Seeing as how real sorceresses are hard to come by these days, they have to settle for mere effigies and man-made representations which, depending on the artisan’s skills, might sometimes resemble a disproportionate, eerie-looking, creepy-eyed doll.
There are many interpretations regarding the roots and meaning of this tradition. But experts most commonly believe that this ceremony is meant to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring. Why that specific day, you ask? For the simple reason that, according to the Czechs’ Slavic forebears, April 30th was the exact day when evil forces reached their peak after having proliferated and thrived during the long, cold and dark winter months. Burning witches was therefore a cathartic act meant to cast away and ward off these evil spirits. To cleanse the air, so to speak.
There’s nothing gloomy or remotely satanic about today’s ritual, for those who wondered. Bonfires are lit on the last day of April and soon become the epicentre of joyful festivities, in the company of one’s families, friends and neighbours: sausage barbecues, kids’ games, outdoors music concerts, costume contest, etc. Pálení čarodějnic fills the early-spring air with songs, chanting and laughs.
Other European countries have similar traditions. Slovaks, for instance, get together two weeks before Easter and burn an effigy of Morena, the ancient goddess of winter and death, before throwing her in a nearby river. The purpose is the same: celebrating, with loved ones, the end of winter and hardships associated with it.
For anyone who happens to be in the Czech Republic around this date, we strongly recommend attending one. It’s quite a sight.
Just follow the smoke… and the smell of carbonized meat.