International Perspective: Easter festivities in Prague recall student’s childhood celebrations

The Grizzly’s international perspective column offers students the opportunity to share their off-campus experiences through travel writing. This week’s student is Courtney DuChene, who is studying abroad in Prague, Czech Republic. 

     During the first few weeks of March, semi-trucks hauled wooden huts into the square in front of the Náměstí Míru tram stop. A few days later, signs advertising crepes, hot wine, and sausages, as well as hand painted wooden eggs and brightly colored ribbons, joined the huts. Every day as I rode past it on the tram, I wondered what this little market was for. Would it be here all spring, or was it just for a limited time? In another few days, a birch tree was brought to the center of the square and decorated with ribbons and Easter eggs. 

     This was my first experience with the traditional Easter market. These markets, which pop up all over Prague in the month before Easter, feature gifts, such as embroidered cloth, jewelry, and candles, as well as traditional Czech Easter products like the pomlázky, which are whips made from braided willow twigs, and hand painted wooden eggs for hanging in the windows. They also feature a variety of foods that vary from traditional Czech cuisine, like sausages; trdlo, a dessert similar to churros; and hot wine; to foods borrowed from other countries, such as hamburgers and the Hungarian langos, a fried dough topped with sour cream and cheese. 

     The Easter markets, however, are only a part of the larger Czech Easter celebration. In the guidebook, “Top 10 Prague,” I was given before leaving for my study abroad program, Easter Monday is listed as the number 2 holiday, after New Year’s. Easter celebrations, however, extend weeks before the holiday. For example, in the Old Town Square Easter market I visited, they have a stage set up for cultural performances. When I was there, a group of elementary aged girls in brightly colored dresses held hands and danced while singing folk songs in Czech. 

     In addition to the Easter Markets, there are individual celebrations during the week leading up to Easter. According to the website myczechrepublic.com, Czechs celebrate the last supper on Green Thursday, Jesus’ Death on Good Friday, and the resurrection on White Saturday. On Easter Sunday, they prepare by painting eggs and decorating for the cumulation of the holiday, Easter Monday. On Easter Monday, Czech boys use their pomlázky, to lightly tap the girls in order to wish them youth and fertility. In exchange, the girls offer them painted eggs and tie colorful ribbons to their pomlázky.

     Elaborate Easter celebrations are something I have missed since starting college. Growing up, my Catholic family celebrated Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter vigil on Saturday by attending mass on each of those days. Mass during these holy days deviated, however, from the typical Catholic Church service. On Holy Thursday, for example, the parish community recreated the Last Supper with a potluck dinner and we all washed each other’s feet as Jesus did for his disciples before he was crucifixed. 

     Since coming to Ursinus, I have not participated in these traditions partly because I am no longer a practicing Catholic and partly because I cannot celebrate with my family since the college doesn’t take time off for Easter the way it does for Thanksgiving and winter holidays. In the Czech Republic, however, Eastern Monday and Good Friday are public holidays which everyone celebrates. This is partially because Easter became a celebration of spring during the communist era rather than a religious holiday and, while the Christian roots and symbols have returned, Easter has remained a celebration for everyone, something even the non-religious, can participate in.    

     The big Easter celebrations here have not only allowed me to experience a new culture, but they have also reminded me of fond memories from my childhood. It has been a wonderful comfort to find a familiar holiday while I’ve been away from home.