Czech Easter - Masopust: Mardi Gras Czech-Style!
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 králů) 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 priests!

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 during the procession.

In Dobrkovská Lhotka near Trhové Sviny, you may also see a chorus of carolers during the festival.

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 and 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.