Easter traditions in Slovakia

Upravené: sobota, 22. október 2011

Whips and water: Easter in Slovakia
"Women hate Easter, men love it," says one Slovak ethnographer.
Easter morning was always stressful for a Slovak girl. Her father woke her at 6:00 a.m. by pouring cold water on her face, and for the next six hours, young men would come to her flat or house, drag her outside, douse her with buckets of water and whip her with wicker sticks. oblievacka.jpg

Tradition compelled her to give the boys dyed hard-boiled eggs and tie a ribbon around their whips. Her father rewarded the boys with money and a shot of alcohol.

The girl's ordeal is shared by Slovak women in villages and small cities across the country on Easter Monday - the focus of Slovakia's Easter season. Bands of young men and boys set out to win chocolate and money by whipping and pouring water on young Slovak women. The customs, once believed to purify the soul and body, are the remnants of a complex system of Slovak folk traditions based around the seasons of the year.

"Women hate Easter, men love it," said ethnographer Zuzana Beňušková. "But on the other hand, women brag the following day about the number of visits they had."

The water-throwing and whipping became linked to the Easter holiday after Christianity came to Slovakia in the ninth century. But the traditions originated as part of folk beliefs based on nature's cycle.

Mid-April was celebrated as a time of rebirth: processions were used to drive away evil spirits, houses were decorated with vegetation (the egg survives today as a symbol of life), and whipping and water were employed to ensure a young woman's fertility and beauty. It was believed that the vitality from the young twigs entwined in the whip would flow into the woman's body.

While many traditions have died out, Easter Monday's water and whipping have remained a colourful relic of Slovak folk life.

According to the ethnographer, the days leading up to the date are now seen as Christian by Slovaks. But Monday continues to be a day of folk traditions. Even the Slovak name for the holiday – „Veľká noc“ or Big Night - seems secular.

There have been some changes. Whipping and dousing were performed in most parts of Slovakia up to the 1950s, but the advent of Communism, which discouraged religious rituals, Christian or folk, and forced the migration of Slovaks from villages to cities, led to their gradual demise, at least in their purest form.

In Slovakia's biggest cities, symbolic reference to the customs - spraying scented water from a small flask - is more common than full-out drenchings and lashings; even in villages and smaller cities, things are not what they used to be.

It is said that men used to throw women in the river that flows through town. They no longer do that. But they still douse them with water.

Yet the traditions seem to carry a certain charm, even for Slovak women, that may guarantee their continuation.

Fertile traditions: Slovak Easter egg art

kraslice_1.jpgEASTER is one of the few Christian holidays that does not have a fixed date on the Julian calendar. It obeys the lunar calendar, falling on the first Sunday after the full moon, keeping time with the rhythm of nature and pre-Christian traditions.

In the same way, one of the most time-hallowed Easter traditions - decorated eggs - derives from prehistoric rites rather than Christian teaching.
"The egg is a symbol of the circle of life, of its infinity and immortality," says ethnologist Viera Feglová. "Colours are symbolic as well. They express spring and youth. Anthropologists have discovered that some colours, such as violet, are even genetically 'codified' as 'good'."

With Slovak Easter fast approaching, decorated eggs can be bought in shops and market places all over the country. Large collections of colourfully designed eggs may be seen at many exhibitions, and decorating techniques are explained at open workshops.

Apart from being a symbol of Easter, the humble egg has gained other meanings over the centuries. "It was used in magic. Its shape represented perfection and proportionality. Very frequently it was used as a means of exchange in trade. It was an important symbol of sacrifice especially during the spring, when pieces of shell were put in furrows where cabbages were grown to ensure a bountiful crop," says Feglová.

In Slovakia these traditions are still very much alive and almost innumerable. There are many folk artists who specialise in egg decoration.

They use practices called 'batik', enriched with local motifs. Symbols and pictures are etched on the egg's surface in wax, using a pin or tiny metal tube. The egg is then submerged in dye, and the wax removed with a warm cloth. The colour of the waxed areas is thus protected.

Lily of the valley, fir-branch, small and big spider, and sun are typical patterns you find on Slovak eggs, and all carry their own meanings and traditions.

Batik is only one of a range of traditional techniques which accentuate the natural colour of the egg. The egg can be blown out or boiled together with herbs that provide colours resistant to heat - onionskin, cereal stems and other plants. Later, leaves may be applied to give a foliate pattern to the eggshell.

While straight-forward egg painting is perhaps the most frequent technique, other means of decoration involving cut straw are still practices.

Newer techniques reflect the development of local crafts and use motifs from folk costumes. Wrapping eggs in wire is typical in northern Slovakia, which is known for its tinker tradition. The egg may be also decorated with wool, leather or other materials such as lace.

Many Slovaks today who decorate eggs using historical techniques say they do it more for relaxation than because they identify with pre-Christian rituals. Ninety-five per cent of the people who decorate eggs do so for their own purposes, largely commercial. Before it never used to happen that women from Košice (in eastern Slovakia) would come to Bratislava (the capital in western Slovakia) to sell eggs. But we're also seeing a general revival of traditional techniques, because people these days feel the need to work with natural materials in their hands. It's a form of therapy.

Slovak decorated Easter eggs are also popular abroad.