In Slovakia, Easter signals a lot more than the resurrection of Jesus. It is a day that symbolizes re-birth, fertility, and the welcoming of spring with health in mind. As is the case with a lot of Catholic holidays, Easter is a mix of christian and pagan traditions. Looking at the Slovak tradition of bathing in cold water and whipping/or spanking of women with branches on Easter, one cannot help but think of these rituals as something nature-worshipping celts and pagans might have done. It is these traditions that make Slovakia and Czech Republic special. I know what you are thinking. Whipping? Bathing? Allow me to explain.
Here is how Slovaks and Czechs celebrate Easter. While Good Friday and Easter Sunday says Easter to most of the world, in Slovakia the celebration continues on Monday. Monday after Easter Sunday is a national holiday, and it is purely reserved for eating and socializing. Artisanal eggs get displayed on trees, in vases, and around the home. Carefully arranged plates of cheeses, sandwiches, ham, sweets, and more, await hungry visitors. Here is where things get a little weird. It is on this day that women and girls prepare for company that whips them, bathes them in buckets of water, and if you live near a river, a dunk in the water is not out of the question. While most of the visitors include family, neighbors and school mates, a stranger (or a group of them) might try to pay you a visit as well. Whether you let them in, or not, is up to you. These customs used be taken very seriously in small villages, but be assured, the days of strangers from a town over coming to whip you and throw you in the river are gone. In modern day Slovakia, the whipping holiday custom requires consent and knowing your visitors.
How does it all work? A bendy whip, called korbáč, is braided into intricate designs. The whip itself can be considered a type of art. Each family has their own special way of braiding it. In rare cases, visitors find a unique tree in the mountains with prickly branches, but we have yet to find out what type of tree this is (if you are reading this and know, please contact us). The typically whipping or spanking is gentle, and polite company uses perfume instead of water. A normal visit consist of a respectful exchange or a fun water fight in the back yard. Any aggressive ambushing is not accepted by the new generations of Slovaks. Before the company leaves, you feed them, present them with your best decorated egg, and tie a ribbon on their whip. Alcohol is another way to pay visitors and thank them for visiting. By now, you might be thinking: What and why?
When I was a child growing up in Slovakia, Easter both excited and terrified me. I loved dressing up and weaving a special flower headpiece, but made sure to wear pants under my skirt. Looking back, I find the custom of whipping interesting, but certainly problematic. My family continues the tradition even in New York, and it is always civil, fun, and even rejuvenating. Many women welcome visitors in the name of beauty, fertility and good health. If you visit Slovakia during Easter and see men chasing women around in their back yards, do not be alarmed. It is very likely that they are having fun, and before you call the custom sexist, be assured that women get to play their part in whipping as well. It all ends up being a fun game of chasing each other with whips and water. After all, men desire health just as much women.
Yes, the tradition is weird and has murky history. Most Slovaks grew up celebrating Easter in this manner, and to them it is normal. With that said, good luck explaining it to the rest of the world!