Czech Easter - Masopust: Mardi
Contributed by Petr Chudoba
Krátký masopust - dlouhá zima.
Short carnival - long winter.
Carnival is celebrated in many
parts of the world. It combines a number of old fertility
rites and customs like the driving out of winter. Its existence
and origins are well documented in early mythology and primitive
drawings. In the center of primitive religious rites and
rituals stand the mask, dance and the procession. The human
desire to disguise, to assume a different role, is as old
as humankind itself.
Roots of the carnival traditions
can be found in ancient Greece and Rome. Carnival in Rome
became popular around the middle of the second century as
a way to feast and act wild before the somber days of Lent.
They wore costumes and masks. They celebrated Bacchus and
Venus and all things glutinous and pleasurable. The Bacchus
parade is still held during Mardi Gras.
From Epiphany (Den tří
until Ash Wednesday (Popeleční středa), the people in the
Czech Republic celebrate a season of merrymaking and masquerading
called masopust. Literally, the word masopust (like its
English counterpart "carnival") means "good-bye
to meat". This is a time of plenty, in which butchering
and pork feasts are traditionally held along with pre-Lenten
carnivals. These celebrations have traditionally been both
the most colorful and the wildest folklore events held under
a variety of names.
This carnival tradition has
been passed down most of all in Moravia, although it is
also celebrated in Bohemia, with each village having its
own version of the celebration. While it has many supporters,
it also has its critics, especially among the rank-and-file
A universal feature of masopust
is the wearing of masks, thought by the twentieth-century
religious historian Mircea Eliade to represent the dead
who are likely to return to their homes at this topsy-turvy
time. Also, when the New Year was celebrated at the vernal
equinox, these rites were meant to strengthen the sun and
welcome its return.
A multitude of masks - whose
significance and symbolism are not well known nowadays -
are present in the traditional parades. The most popular
human characters are devils, chimney sweeps, cow herders
and ring masters. The most popular animals are bears, goats,
dogs, sheep, rams, pigs, chickens or a horse who carries
a bag in his mouth and collects doughnuts into it.
Many of those in costume already
have their tasks cut out for them, such as the bears who
scare the little children. A villager may also be dressed
like a monster known as the Rychtář with a mare's head,
frightening the children and threatening the girls who spin
if they spin on days when they shouldn't.
Bruna, another terrifying creature,
may be adorned with fantastic horns, reminding one vaguely
of a giraffe, a camel or a goat. This animal sometimes walks
alone but is often accompanied by a train of odd-looking
attendants, persons disguised in every possible way.
While noisily singing, shouting
and dancing, the costumed characters make their way from
house to house, where they're treated to food and drink.
The procession usually ends in the pub, where the eating,
drinking and merrymaking often continue until morning.
In the border region between
Moravia and Slovakia, dancers walk around in a procession
carrying wooden swords intertwined in a closed chain. This
custom is the ancient sword dance symbolizing the eternal
cycle of life and seasons and belongs to the group of dances
celebrating the sun. In Strání, the dance is still performed
in traditional costumes. In the Horaľďovice and Strakonice
regions in South Bohemia, a comic wedding is acted out
In Dobrkovská Lhotka near Trhové
Sviny, you may also see a chorus of carolers during the
The Czechs and Moravians enjoy
using a variety of noisemakers on this holiday, and a favorite
one is a wooden ratchet (řehtačka). These come in many sizes,
and most of them work by waving them in the air, which causes
them to spin with a loud clatter. In some villages they
have ratchets so big that they're like wheelbarrows, and
you have to push them down the street.
The carnival celebration peaks
on the last few days before Lent, when young and old attend
dances at the village inn. The preparations for masopust,
starting on "Fat Thursday", usually involved the
slaughter of a pig and the serving of the traditional Czech
meal of roast pork with sauerkraut. According to tradition,
this was a day filled with eating and drinking to keep your
strength up all year long.
The main masopust celebration
begins on Sunday with a rich dinner. It is then followed
by dancing, entertainment and fun all night long.
Bright and early on Monday morning,
masqueraders and musicians meet in the village square
then parade around the village. They stop in front of all
the houses and dance or perform a short skit. The homeowner
then asks for small favors of the group "that there
be no hard feelings during the days of merriment".
The small favor is paid for by the donation of doughnuts,
bacon, eggs, koláčky, etc.
Monday continues with feasting
and dancing, and in some villages they have dances for married
couples only. According to one superstition, the height
to which the grain will grow depends on the height the farmer's
wife (or daughter) can jump while dancing!
Many sayings and proverbs are
attached to this season, such as "The farmer who dances
a lot will have a good crop of wheat" or "The
flax will grow as high as the farmer's daughter can jump".
The day before Ash Wednesday
is called masopustní úterý. On that day, the
parade goes around the village again, ending with a dance
at the inn. This dance is the most festive of them all,
with everyone taking part. The women of the village bake
a large and beautifully decorated pastry wreath, which is
placed on the table. They then form a circle around it and
dance. The men try to break through this ring and get a
piece of the pastry wreath. The man who accomplishes this
must then treat the women with candies. Once reached, the
rest of the wreath is cut up and sold to bidders.
As midnight nears, the young
folks make preparations to bury the bass fiddle. The bass
fiddle is dressed in a woman's dress and draped with ribbons
as a symbol of music and cheerfulness. It is then laid on
the chairs and the group, in the circle, proclaims the sorrow
of parting with happy times and music. The eulogies are
said and the bass fiddle is then carried in a festive parade
around the hall until the stroke of midnight. At this time,
all merriment ceases and all depart for their homes to start
the observance of Lent.
In some regions, the figure being
buried is Bakus, represented by a figure of an old man.
In Milevsko, this custom has been carried out since the
Middle Ages. Bakus who walked around the pubs on carnival
Monday and Tuesday and on Ash Wednesday used to be buried
first in the brook which went through the square, later
in Kuklík Pond or at Sádky.
The procession of Bakus consisted
of the comical characters of his wife and child, a gravedigger,
a sexton, a priest, mourners, and acolytes. Bakus was carried
on a cart and was wearing a dress stuffed with straw.
His burial in the snow at a brook
or a pond used to be rather dangerous for the person who
represented him! Once when a person playing the part of
Bakus died from cold, the custom was forbidden by the authorities.
The last procession devoted to Bakus occurred in 1864.
However, this was not the end
of the masked festivities. During the preceding years, other
comical characters began joining his procession. By 1862
there were whole parades of masked figures. With Bakus no
longer at the front of the parade, others took his place
of prominence, and a different one was featured each year.
This is not to say that Bakus was never seen again! Every
so often he'd make a guest appearance in one of the parades!
The masked parades in Milevsko
take place on Fat Tuesday to mark the end of carnival. The
modern form of processions dates back to 1862. They developed
from medieval regional folk plays, dealing with St. Barbara,
St. Nicholas, St. Lucy, St. Dorothy, the Three Kings, Bakus,
Perechta, Líska, Řehoř, and Lito.
Typical masks in Milevsko include:
an old hag with a basket, a beanpole, Bakus, a sausage man,
barbers, a bear-leader, a chicken farm and many others.
There are also new masks which have appeared over the years.
It was a great honor to participate
in these parades and inclusion was limited to the residents
of Milevsko. A committee, consisting of chosen local residents,
voted on each individual who wanted to perform in the parade.
Advertising the event was carried
out systematically. Two weeks before the holiday, men with
paintbrushes would wander about, painting various rhymes
about the festivities on the shop windows. The next week,
humorous posters were tacked up throughout the city. And
finally, on Fat Thursday, several costumed characters would
walk the streets of the city, inviting people to the festivities
on the following Tuesday.