The wine flowed freely and the music played until the small hours at the annual costume ball in the town of Vlčnov last Saturday. The ball annually launches the reign of the new boy-king elected by the young men who’d come of age the previous year. The centuries old tradition, which culminates with the Ride of the Kings in May, is on UNESCO’s cultural heritage list.
Dressed in colourful regional costumes, the inhabitants of the Moravian town of Vlčnov gathered for the official presentation of their new boy-king, 10-year-old Šimon Pešl, who was clearly enjoying every minute of his new-found fame. Balancing on the shoulders of two members of his company, Šimon beamed at his admirers and gave his first interview to reporters as TV cameras documented the event.
The Ride of the Kings dating back to 1808 is a unique tradition that is now only practiced in four Moravian towns and villages, Hluk, Kunovice, Skoronice and Vlčnov – which puts on the most flamboyant show of all.
Every year a new boy king is elected – from among the local boys aged between 10 and 12. It is the privilege of the young men who have newly come of age to make the choice and they make the rounds of families with suitable candidates to ask if they would be willing to take on the social duties that go with the honour of having their son elected king for a year. Those who have undertaken them say the expenses are akin to those of a wedding.
The highlight of the festivities is the traditional Ride of the Kings held on the last weekend of May. The boy -king’s company makes its way to his house where he is being dressed for the event –in traditional women’s folk costume to mask his identity. The tradition of the horseback ride through the town is linked to the Bohemian-Hungarian War. In 1469, The King of Bohemia, Jiří of Poděbrady, defeated his son-in-law, Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus, who, in order not to be recognized and captured, donned a woman’s attire, covered his face with ribbons and placed a rose between his teeth in order to remain silent as he returned to his residence in Trenčín guarded by his company, who had to collect money from serfs to feed him. This version of the Ride of the Kings has been handed down for generations. The ride is headed by chanters, followed by pageboys with unsheathed swords. The king’s entourage rides on horses brightly decorated with ribbons and ornaments, stopping to chant short rhymes and ask for donations from the crowd. The money is placed either in a money box or slipped directly into the riders’ boots. The King’s retinue returns home after a few hours of riding, and celebrates in the evening at the house of the King with a small feast, music and dancing.
The Ride of the Kings is a feast for ethnographers – the traditional paper decorations and ornaments are made by the local womenfolk, using colours, patterns and shapes specific to each village. The procession also presents the regional costume in many variations that cannot be seen anywhere else because they are privately owned and have been handed down from generation to generation. According to Vlčnov records in 1999, close to 200 adults and children presented 81 variations of the Vlčnov folk costume, the oldest of which dates back to 1846.
The merrymaking accompanying The Ride of the Kings lasts for the better part of three days - from Friday until late Sunday – and visitors to the town are treated not just to a unique festival but to the town’s renowned hospitality. The young king is already practicing his horse riding skills and asked what worries him most about the challenging role he has accepted he says it is the rose between his teeth, because he is far too talkative to keep silent for the better part of a day.
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