Credit: Casadei Graphics

Pomlázka: The Most Controversial Czech Easter Tradition

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It’s no secret that every culture has its own traditions and way of celebrating important holidays, but Czechs have a rather peculiar way of approaching Easter.

Starting from the week leading up to Easter, each day is associated with a particular name, traditional activities, and sometimes even a colour, such as Green Thursday, when people are supposed to behave compassionately and not anger themselves, to avoid keeping this mood every other Thursday of the year. The name comes from the vegetable-based dishes that Christians used to eat on this day, following a Jewish custom, and inspired the use of green beer (Zelené pivo) to celebrate.

Pomlazka. Credit: Chmee2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the quaintest and most controversial Czech Easter tradition is without a doubt Pomlázka (from the verb pomladit, “make younger”), which involves the whipping of women’s backs by the men and boys of a community, usually a village or small town, with a braided willow rod (pomlázka). This takes place on Easter Monday, sometimes from Sunday midnight, and in exchange for this “favour”, meant to symbolically ensure youth and fertility for the beaten women, men will receive something to eat, usually painted eggs, and liquor.

The tradition appears as a pre-Christian ritual resembling other feasts aimed at enhancing fertility, like the pagan Lupercalia in Rome, where young semi-naked men whipped women (and the soil) to grant prosperity. It is not unusual that such rituals take place in a period close to spring and renovation, as Pomlázka, which might have been probably “Christianized” and fixed in an Easter context at a later date.

Pomlázka has various names and rhymes that accompany it, and takes on slightly different characteristics in various parts of the Czech Republic. For example, in some villages, the tradition is more “egalitarian”, including the chance for women to give the men payback the following day.

Artistic depiction of a pomlazka, by Marie Gardavská. Credit: М. Gardavská, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the tradition, whose first written sources date back to the 14th century, is largely opposed nowadays and is substantially extinct in bigger cities. Many women deem it offensive in its symbolic meaning, even without taking into account the physical whipping, which nowadays is most often gentle.

In villages, this custom is still somewhat accepted and considered as part of the folklore, and as a chance for community meetings and partying, as men travel from house to house, often stopping for a chat and a drink with the family living there aside from the ritual.

The future of this tradition seems more and more uncertain as time passes, but despite the controversial aspects, it is truly a unique way to celebrate Easter and an anthropological remainder of an old (and now somewhat awkward) past.

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