It is often said that the Czech Republic is a land of atheists. This is true to a certain extent, but there are many cases in which religious traditions have left their mark on Czech life. Easter is one such occasion.
Easter, as with Christmas and other such religious holidays, originally has pagan roots. It takes place each year around about the time of the spring equinox. In the Christian Church, Easter signifies the deliverance of the world from evil; this is linked with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
While all Christians commemorate the same biblical events, the way that they do so varies. The biggest differences can be found between Eastern and Western Christian traditions – that is to say between the customs of the Catholic, Evangelical, and Reformed Churches and those of the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the most obvious differences is the festival’s date. In Western tradition, Easter Sunday falls on the first Sunday following the full moon in spring, while in Eastern tradition, the date is linked to the Jewish holiday of Pesach.
The fast before Easter lasts forty days, following the example of Jesus, who fasted in the desert for forty nights, and ends the night after White Saturday on the Holy Feast of Easter, or Easter Sunday. The fast depends on the date of Easter and always begins on a Wednesday , no earlier than the 8th of February and no later than the 14th of March. This Wednesday is called Ash Wednesday, but was also popularly known as Spy Wednesday, Black or Mad Wednesday.
On Ash Wednesday, believers in Catholic churches are given sanctified ash, which by ancient tradition is obtained by burning twigs, mostly pussywillow, which was blessed the previous year on Flower Sunday. With the ashes, which are an old symbol from the Old Testament of penance and humility, the priest makes the sign of the cross on the forehead of the believer. After the giving of ashes, men hurry from the church straight to the pub, to wash it off with a glass of beer or something harder.
In earlier times, the fast was much more strict. Meat, cheese and eggs weren't eaten, nor was milk drunk or butter or fat spread on bread, vegetable oil being used instead. Alcohol was not drunk and tabacco was neither smoked nor taken as snuff. Only one meal a day was eaten, and this was of fruit and vegetables. The fast was later softened - various soups were eaten, such as bean, lentil, cabbage, sour, and carraway. Aside from soups, other simple meatless foods were served, like scones, millet mash, dumplings with damson-cheese, potatoes with milk, or just bread with saurkraut. People then were well aware that if they weren't so active and out working in the fields, then they couldn't eat as much as during the year. Fasting was therefore very beneficial and could even be interesting to those of us today looking for ways to lose weight. An old proverb says "Fasting has yet to starve anyone to death."
It must be admitted though, that the fast was preceeded by a time of plenty, in which the butchering and pork feasts were traditionally held along with the Shrovetide carnival, when masked processions paraded through the streets and villages. This activity had many supporters, but also critics, especially among the secular, rank-and-file priests. The most common and popular masks were those of animals - bears, goats, dogs, sheep, rams, pigs, horses, or chickens. Many of the mask-wearers had their tasks already cut out for them, such as the bears who would scare little children. While noisily singing, shouting, and dancing, the masked procession made its way from house to house, where the participants were treated to food and, mostly, drink. The whole masquerade ended in the pub, where the eating, drinking, and merrymaking often continued to the morning. This tradition of the merry Shrovetide Carnival has been passed down most of all in Moravia, though it also is celebrated in Bohemia.
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