The Easter holidays symbolize the end of winter and the beginning of spring and have, just as the Christmas holidays, pagan roots. The pagan Slavs and Germans celebrated the beginning of Spring as the awakening of nature from its winter sleep. The Jews of this period celebrated their own great holiday - Passover, the Holiday of Mercy, in remembrance of the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt.
Christian Easter links the pagan and Jewish celebrations together, which is evident in the words for Easter in many languages - in Latin, Greek, and Russian pascha, in French paques, and in German Ostern, and English Easter, from the pagan german goddess Ostara. In Czech, the word Velikonoce refers to the Velká noc, or great night, during which Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The night from White Saturday to Easter Sunday was from ancient times regarded as the greatest night on the Church calendar.
As opposed to the Christmas holidays, however, the Easter holidays are mobile. Easter Sunday always follows the first full moon after the first day of Spring. Easter, then, occurs sometime within the period between March 22 and April 25.
This rule for the determination of Easter was established at the Church Council of Nicaei in the year 325 and was based on certain facts mentioned in the account of Christ's death and subsequent resurrection. From the description of events it appears that the crucifiction took place shortly after the beginning of Spring and after a full moon. The Easter holidays are preceeded by a fast just like the Christmas holidays. Christian Easter was dedicated to the memory of the martyrdom and resurrection of Christ and became a meaningful Church holiday. But to this holiday of resurrection was also added a number of customs and traditions with a pre-christian, or pagan, origin, such as the coloring of eggs, a symbol of fertility and life for the pagans. The pagan roots of Easter are also confirmed by traditions leading up to Easter. On Passion Sunday, fourteen days before Easter Sunday, the girls would create Mařena, also called Morena, who was a symbol of winter and death. Their creation represented the end of winter - meaning want, bad weather and cold. Morena was as a rule made of thatch and dressed in girl's clothes, which the girls would remove as they threw her into the brook. They would then lead the procession back to the village.
Christian celebrations of Easter begin a week before the God's feast on Easter Sunday, with Flower Sunday, the start of Passion week. Pussywillow branches, wood, and water are blessed in churches. Crosses are made from the wood, which the men of the parish distribute around their fields and pray for a rich crop for the next year. The beginning of the week was a time of great cleaning. On Blue Monday, Yellow Tuesday, and Black Wednesday, people would be whitewashing their rooms and cottages. Everything had to be carried outside, while on the inside not a room was spared. Not even the chimney was forgotten. After the interior was fully cleaned, the entire cottage was then also whitewashed on the outside as well. By sweeping out their cottages, people were symbolically sweeping winter out, even out of themselves.
With Green Thursday begins the so-called Holy Three-Day, among the most significant days of the Church year. The popular name of Grenn Thursday arose from the Old Testament custom of eating vegetables on this day. On this day of the final evening of the Lord, all bells are rung before they are silenced until White Saturday. The sound of bells, about which it is said that they were cast in Rome, are replaced by children's rattle and clappers and are rattled morning noon and night in the place of bells, and were even used to drive out Judas. One of the oldest of the Easter traditions was the hunting of Judas, who used to be an extra fast fellow indeed. This custom ceased to exist around the beginning of last century, along with the burning of Judas. The woman of the house would sweep it clean before the sun came up so that it didn't hold any bugs. In some places, they ate bread smeared with honey for protection against snakebite, while in other places they threw honey-buttered bread into wells so they would have water in them all year round.
Great Friday was always regarded by the Catholic Church as the day of greatest grief in the Church. It is the only day in the year when mass is not held anywhere in the world. Also, organs are silent, all ornaments are cleared from the altar, and no lights are burned. The cross is shrouded in a black veil. There are also a number of superstitions connected to Great Friday. People get up very early on this day and hurry down to the brook or river, where they wash themselves with cold water and then cross the brook or stream with bare legs because they believed that this ensured good health for the whole next year. Women carried out their quilts to air out, in order to get rid of of sicknesses and and chase ailments out of the house. They would also take their daughters down to wash at the well, so they'd be pretty and well spoken for. No men would be out in the fields, as they couldn't yet do a thing with it. Many believed that on this day the earth gave up its secret treasures and that water sprites came out onto dry land. The weather for the whole year was foretold from the weather on Great Friday.
On White Saturday, a procession paraded around the whole square, and then the entire church, in which was being blessed water and Easter candles, and later where Judas was burned. Pieces of wood were scorched and taken by people to put in the rafters of their houses for protection against lightning and fire. Trees were shaken, so that they had a lot of fruit. White Saturday was regarded, along with Green Thursday, as a lucky day for sowing. The fast ended on this day. Bells were rung before noon. White Saturday used to be a day of peace and quiet. Daytime church services were not held at all, and services were held instead either in the after-evening hours after the sun went down, or after midnight. Only blessed candles and lights were used in the church during these night-time services.
On Sunday, on the God's feast of Easter, people went to church for the ceremonial mass. No one was allowed to work on this Sunday and the family spent the day together, eating and drinking together as well. In the morning, men would distribute twigs of consecrated pussywillow blessed on Flower Sunday around their fields. Women and girls decorated Easter eggs and men and boys braided Easter wands from willow twigs.
Easter Monday is a day of joy for children and adults alike. Men and boys set out in search of girls, in order to hit them with their Easter wands, which are braided from four, six, or eight willow branches and decorated with one or more colored ribbons. The original interpretation of the mrskačcky or šlehačky was one of rejuvenation - transferring the vitality of young twigs to a living being.
During this carolling and whipping, the girls present the boys with eggs - painted, colored, or even just white. The most used color for coloring eggs was red, the color of love. The best known carolling rhyme still remains today:
( ..., give an painted egg,
if you don't give a painted one,
give at least a white one,
the hen will bring you something different.)
In the homes, young men would also receive something besides eggs - glasses of some harder alcohol and mazanec (hot cross buns). Boys would mostly go to the house of the prettiest girl first, and for girls it was a disgrace if nobody came to whip them.
This tradition, with which young men can show affection in their own ways to the fairer sex, has survived even into the present day, especially in the smaller towns and villages. Thanks to this custom, young men could visit young women and drink alcohol with their families, and their merry carolling was tolerated on this day at least.
In conclusion it must be added that Easter, just as Christmas, is a religious holiday that continued to be celebrated even in socialist Czechoslovakia. It simply acquired a slightly different interpretation from the years 1948 to 1989 - it was celebrated officially as a holiday of spring.
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