Today is a kind of holiday in the Czech Republic, though it’s not a day off from work! Today is the Burning of the Witches! This celebration dates back to very pre-historic times. Some believe it was originally a celebration to ward off evil, others say it was originally celebrated as a time to say farewell to winter and to welcome spring! Now, this Burning of the Witches is seen as a combination of both practices, but is done in fun!
Tonight, people will gather around bonfires all over the country—some in their backyards (yes—isn’t that a scary thought!!!) and some on high hills (this is traditional). They will bring food, such as sausages, to cook over the fires. And then, late in the evening, they will bring an effigy of a witch (something like our American scarecrows) and put it on the fire to burn. There is much celebrating as the witch burns. It is a night of drinking and all kinds of revelry! I have not witnessed such an occasion myself, but have been told that these celebrations are somewhat like a mini version of Spring Break! So, it is necessary to use caution when visiting a Burning of the Witches—make sure, ahead of time, that the one you visit is family-safe, otherwise, you might get in on more than you intended for this celebration!
Tomorrow, May 1st, is a public holiday here—it is known as May Day. May Day is celebrated as both a day for lovers and International Labor Day. This holiday also has very deep roots into the past, and has many ways of being celebrated, depending on what part of the Czech Republic you are in. The celebrations vary from May poles to political parades and rallies! The origin of May Day has its roots into the very ancient practice of fertility cults and the celebration of the Spring Equinox. Now, however, May Day, here, is celebrated as a day off from work and a day of lovers. Lovers, here in Prague, will visit Petřín Hill and walk up its beautiful paths to find the statue of Karel Hynek Mácha.
Karel Mácha (1810-1836) is a famous Czech poet. He had a very tragic and short life, but he is famous for writing a beautiful poem called Máj (May—to see an English translation of this poem, please visit here. This poem is about spring and a tragic love between a young man and a woman; the woman dies in the poem and so their love is unfulfilled. Mácha’s poem was rejected by publishers of the time, and he had to have it published at his own expense. It wasn’t until many years later that his poem was “rediscovered” and was appreciated. Now, Mácha’s Máj is considered to be a classic work of Czech Romanticism. It has become traditional for lovers to ascend Petřín Hill and to stand in front of Mácha’s statue and kiss underneath the blooming cherry trees. It is said that a woman should be kissed on May Day so as to keep her from growing old!
The other version of May Day, International Labor Day, has been a national public holiday, off and on, since 1890. It was originally celebrated in recognition of the worker’s movement around the world. International Labor Day was a public holiday in the First Republic, and was a public holiday after the world wars. This holiday was nationalized by the communists when they took over in 1948. At that time, it was mandatory that everyone would take part in the May Day celebrations. People were punished by the communists in many ways (not being able to find a job, go to college, etc) if they did not participate in the May Day celebration. However, after the fall the of communist regime, the May Day holiday celebration reverted back to a public holiday for working people and became known as a day for lovers.
Nowadays, May Day celebrations do include political marches and rallies, but most people see it as a day off of work and a day to spend with their families. This is the way my husband and I celebrate May Day—and yes…he will be kissing me under a cherry tree tomorrow!!!
I hope you all have a wonderful and happy May Day!
(c) 2008 by czechoffthebeatenpath