What would you say if I told you Slavic people celebrate Easter with whips and water fights? I know what you are thinking. Whipping? Bathing? Allow me to explain. As is the case with a lot of Catholic holidays, Easter is a mix of christian and pagan traditions. Pagans celebrated the festival of spring, and what a celebration it was! They jumped over fires, danced, hung eggs from tress, and made time for love. The resurrection of Chris was far from their minds.
While Good Friday and Easter Sunday say Easter to most of the world, in Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, and other countries, the celebration continues on Monday. Monday after Easter Sunday is a national holiday in these countries, and it is purely reserved for eating and socializing. Here is where things get a little weird. It is on this day that women and girls prepare for company that comes over to whip them, and either gently sprinkle water on them, or outright drenches them in buckets of it. If you live near a river, a dunk in the water is not out of the question. The Easter whip is made of willow branches, or other bendy twigs. It is artfully braided into a long whip and girls decorate it with ribbons. It is a symbol for fertility and the one doing the whipping recites a rhyme. Of course some traditions are the same all over: homes and tables are proudly decorated with artisanal eggs, there is plenty of food for hungry visitors, and to satisfy the sweet tooth, there is the Easter lamb cake. While most of the visitors include family, neighbors and school mates, a stranger (or a group of them) might attempt a visit as well. Whether you let them in, or not, is up to you. These customs used be taken very seriously, but be assured, the days of strangers 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. A normal visit consists 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. Shots of vodka are another common way to thank your visitors. By now, you might be thinking: What, and why?
To Pagans Easter is a day that symbolizes re-birth, fertility, and the welcoming of spring with health in mind. Looking at the Slavic traditions, 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 the Czech Republic special.
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. Yes, the tradition is strange and has murky history, but most holidays do. The Slavic people 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!