This year I saw a different side of the age-old Czech tradition of whipping. Although I’ve been on the receiving end of the Czech pomlázka tradition (an Eastern European Easter tradition where a whip made from braided pussy willow twigs is used by men to swat girls and women), the gentle swats I’ve gotten from my husband’s family always seem a gesture of hospitality and a matter of custom–never a whipping, in the physical sense. Until this year, being “whipped” never hurt.
Though I’ve listened to Czech girlfriends cite instances where they felt Czech men (even their own fathers, uncles and brothers) took the tradition out of hand, I always assumed that if a woman said she didn’t want to be whipped her wishes would be respected. Otherwise, I couldn’t believe that the originally pagan practice could survive through the transition to Christianity and today’s observation of Easter Monday as a national holiday.
Interestingly, I know just as many Czech women who embrace the pomlázka ritual as those who try to avoid it. For women of my husband’s mother’s and grandmother’s generation, the tradition of entertaining kolednici (carolers) and offering kraslice (painted eggs), chocolate and liquor during a short Easter morning visit is a matter of honor. My Czech contemporaries say their mothers and grandmothers would feel insulted if they didn’t have their male Czech friends and relatives visiting on Easter morning, even if they don’t carry a pomlázka.
These same women tell me laughingly how being whipped will ensure that I’m healthy, fertile and literally don’t “dry out” during the coming year. I have to laugh, too, when I see the seriousness of their faces, although the efforts that go into the Easter day preparations are no laughing matter. In addition to preparing bowls of decorated eggs and chocolates, Czech women often fill the table with a spread of chlebičky (open-faced sandwiches) and other sweets. Spring cleaning, airing the house and washing windows are also often part of the pre-Easter preparations.
The going door-to-door aspect of Czech Easter Monday reminds me a bit of American Halloween, although Czech culture dictates that visitors actually sit down and enjoy each other’s company before heading off. For years now, I’ve sat and watched the tradition from the safety of Radek’s aunt’s couch. While children say their “Hody hody” rhyme and wave their pomlázka over teta’s backside, she smilingly slips chocolates and painted eggs into their bags and graciously pours a shot of silvovice or Becherovka for the father typically accompanying them.
Instead of sitting on the sidelines this year, I played the role of hostess. But it wasn’t planned.
In a gesture of good faith, the neighbors on our street had come together for our first street wide spring barbeque on the Sunday afternoon before Easter Monday. With wine, beers and shots of Czech liquor flowing freely, good relations were forged and vykantní (formal) language (finally) abandoned. Most of the neighbors spoke Czech with me all night, and treated me as an insider.
Late in the night we all watched as one of the neighbors plaited his pomlázka. Afterward, he teasingly tried it out on my backside, explaining that since I wouldn’t be around the following day, he needed to make sure I got my whipping for good health. We left the party saying our Happy Easters, and I assumed our neighborhood Easter duties were over.
Early Monday morning, I was in the middle of explaining to Anna Lee (six) and Oliver (nearly four) how the Easter bunny had visited in the night and hidden some eggs for them to find, when I heard the first knock. Since all of our neighbors knew that we were headed out of town to spend Easter Monday with Radek’s family, I hadn’t expected any visitors. In fact, we’d postponed our American Easter egg hunt tradition until Monday, hoping to contain the kids’ excessive sugar intake to a single day.
Caught flustered in the middle of the egg hunt, I stood motionless while four neighborhood kids rushed in, pomlázka in hand. They headed straight for me, shouting, “Hody hody doprovody…” while they waved their switches back and forth on my backside. Anna Lee and Oliver crowded wide-eyed around the kids.
When they finished, I ran to bring candy from the pantry. I was embarrassed to be caught unprepared and I could tell that the children probably expected fancier sweets than the 5 Kc lollipops and Hershey kisses I offered. I knew I was supposed to give them an egg as well, so I quickly grabbed some of the eggs Anna had colored and held my breath waiting for her to protest as I gave them away. But both Oliver and Anna were speechless and the children left in a flash as quickly as they’d come.
Just as I was lamenting that I hadn’t been better prepared I heard Radek laughing and saying, “Come on in” in Czech. I stared wide-eyed as our adult neighbor raced in. Instead of greeting me with a hello, he began chanting and beating my bottom vigorously with his pomlázka.
At first I was calm, prepared to participate in the old tradition, but as he continued to hit me with more vigor, I began to swell with anger. Shocked and annoyed, I looked to Radek for help. He seemed surprised by my displeasure and asked, “What are you doing? It’s a tradition.”
I retorted back, “But I’m not even Czech! And it hurts! And he whipped me already last night!
“Get him a shot,” Radek instructed.
“You get the shot, yourself.” I fumed back, but when the beating stopped, I went to find a bottle of liquor. I figured the faster I gave him a shot, the quicker he might go away and move on to his next conquest. I was close to tears and ready to explode.
If anyone had told me beforehand that I’d have reacted with such fury, I wouldn’t have believed them. I still wasn’t sure if I was madder about the indignity of the unexpected whipping, the fact that it actually hurt, or the fact that I hadn’t been mentally or physically prepared for the carolers.
I vowed not to be caught off-guard next year. If our neighbors wanted to extend the Czech tradition of Easter hospitality to me, their American transplant, then I wanted to make sure that my message was clear: symbolic whipping was appropriate, but I wouldn’t accept anything beyond that. I wanted to convey my sense of appreciation for the richness of the unique tradition without endorsing the extremes.
When I retold the story to Radek’s family, I was particularly unsettled by the way his aunt nodded as if she’d heard it all before. She grinned and said, “At least you’ll be healthy,” before she more seriously suggested that I put a pillow under my skirt next year. That didn’t seem to be an answer to the problem. After my experience, I gained an even more profound understanding for why so many Czech girls and women dread the holiday.
I’ve decided that next year, I’ll prepare a rhyme to say as I welcome the whipping men, namely promoting gentleness. Maybe I’ll even make them hunt for their own egg to show them a little of my American Easter tradition. Perhaps it could help them remember the essence of the holiday and not get carried away. I’d like to give the tradition another chance to show me its best side. At the very least, I owe it to myself to create an Easter tradition that Anna Lee and I can be as happy with as Oliver and Radek.
Reprinted from the Prague Monitor with permission.