Hello and welcome to Spotlight. This week I take you to a festival that comes just once a year to the Czech Republic, once a year around the world - that's right it's Carnival, or Masopust as it is known in Czech! In the Czech Republic, as elsewhere it is a time of festivity, drink, and revelry, playful flirting, and even the thumbing of one's nose at the establishment - all part of the fun. If you have never been to carnival, or have been and never forgot it, join me now to take part in this fascinating holiday...
Well, here I am at Jan Zizka Square in the southern Bohemian town of Tabor, the date is February 12th, in other words Shrove Tuesday, the final day when carnival celebrations come to a head for another year. Around me is an excited crowd of adults, children, teenagers who are anxiously waiting for the final carnival procession to arrive. Everyone is attentive, even at the booths where they are selling popcorn, doughnuts, and gingerbread hearts, not to mention beer and other alcohol.
Perhaps you can already hear the first blare of trumpets of the procession making its way through the streets. Here it comes now, the parade is entering the square.
Masks. The single most important aspect of any Masopust parade. Czech carnival has a series of archetypal figures that are always meant to appear, and here and there in the coming procession it is already possible to spot a few. The figure of the Devil, looking menacing waving his shackles and chains, a green-skinned water goblin, a figure who drowns innocent victims and steals their souls. And also three scary monsters who come forward on stilts, stepping forward awkwardly as they beat their drums.
But as the procession comes near one thing becomes dramatically clear: the times are changing... more and more of the masks in the procession have less to do with traditional Masopust and more to do with something like Halloween. For one thing there's a whole group imitating the U.S. Lake Placid hockey team from 1980. A hockey team at Masopust! And would you believe me if I told you I just saw a lady with her baby dressed-up like a chubby mobile phone. That has to be a first!
Okay. Less traditional, but nobody seems to mind. After all Masopust is really about everybody having a good time.
What's your name?
Who, or what, are you dressed as? What costume are you in today?
And you, Elizabeth? She's a fairy - you're what?
"I'm a witch."
A witch... Okay. And... I don't know your name...
"I am Marketa. I am a witch too."
Is this the first Masopust you have taken part in, or have you taken part before?
And how did you like it?
"It was great!"
"My name is Fau. We made these costumes on our own. These costumes are ours, because we are fencers, and we use our costumes during all the year. We represent the Medieval Age, the 14th and 15th century."
Why don't you introduce the people in your group...
"His name is Petr, and he is the head of one group. The head of another group is Jezka, and today he is dressed as an Englishman."
Yes, you can tell! He's dressed in a perfect suit, and has a cane and an English top hat. So, a real nobleman...
Correct me if I'm wrong... I'm standing here with a gray wolf?
And beside you...
"A "Moslem" lady..."
She's completely covered, as if she were in Afghanistan!
Who are you representing in the parade today?
"We are volunteer fire fighters from Tabor...These clothes are from just after the war, from 1953."
What did you think of Masopust this year?
"There are more and more people at Masopust every year. It's a success! We are going to continue in the pub over there, and it should be good!"
One thing that I missed was, I heard that they usually slaughter a pig during the festival, but I didn't see that here...
"That can be arranged! Believe me!"
What about the smaller villages... where is carnival better - in a bigger town like Tabor, or in a village?
"Oh, definitely in a village. People in villages are closer together and hang out more; the tradition is much stronger there...it still means something."
"I like Masopust. One thing, it's connected to the old traditions, like Easter. I used to like these symbolic straw figures they made in villages, and carried in the procession, and I liked the old masks."
Can the revival of Masopust in Tabor compete with what used to be?
"Well, you know, at least we've got something: the parades were banned by the Communists before... Now it's being slowly taken-up again, step-by-step. One thing I'm not sorry I saw go was, when a few years ago when Masopust was started up in Tabor again, people started wearing these awful masks, like of singer Karel Gott, and politicians Vaclav Klaus, and Milos Zeman, and Vaclav Havel. That was ridiculous! I'm glad that's gone!"
Hello, what's your name?
How old are you?
"I am four."
This is your first Masopust?
How do you like it so far?
"I like it! I am creating magic with this magic wand, which will protect us!"
In the end even little Jakub is not afraid, not of the devils, nor of the three monsters on stilts, not even of the mock U.S. hockey team! And so the end of Masopust slowly draws near, an afternoon of watching the masks cavort, an afternoon of heavy drinking for some, and heavy drinking for others... and for the adventurous the evening is young and the surrounding pubs beckon. All in all, most of those I was able to spend time with at the carnival agreed it was a Masopust well spent.
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