On the first warm spring Saturday this year I was at the neighborhood garden center with Samuel. I’d come in search of a couple of new seasonal plants for our terrace stone planters. Samuel, however, was more interested in getting himself dirty in the sandbox and watching the canary. When headed up to the check-out counter, I realized with dismay that a long line had formed while I’d been aimlessly enjoying the fresh spring blooms. I chided myself for having missed our opportunity to get in and out of the garden center in a timely manner. However, while I waited in line I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between fellow customers nearby.
An American woman had been examining a traditional Czech pomlázka (a whip made from braided pussy willow twigs). In fact, I recognized the woman from my kid’s gymnastics class, although I’d never spoken to her before. It seemed that she lived somewhere in the neighborhood. I watched her puzzling over the pomlázka. By the way she ran her hand over the colorful streamers and waved the whip playfully in the air, I was pretty sure she was a newcomer to the Czech Easter tradition.
Before she had decided whether or not to purchase one, or how to use it in her decorations, a local couple spotted her and tried to give her some pointers.
“You should buy it,” the husband encouraged.
“Yes,” the wife agreed.
The American looked surprised that someone had noticed her, but pleased at last to get some insider information. “How do I use it?” she asked.
The Czech couple explained that the pomlázka was a special symbol of Czech Easter. “It’s used by the man to make sure you are healthy,” the Czech woman clarified.
“So, should I buy one for my husband? Or should he come back and buy it for himself?” the American asked. “I’m going to a dinner party tonight, should I take one to the host?” she continued to rattle off questions, but the Czech couple, perhaps feeling that they had gotten in over their heads in an English conversation, began to slip toward the garden center exit.
Just as they were leaving the husband called back, “Yes, buy it for the host. They will think you are clever for knowing about our tradition.”
Once the Czech couple was out of sight the American, her teenage daughter and her daughter’s friend began to talk among themselves. “It’s sexist against women” the friend piped up.
The mom looked at her for a minute quizzically then retorted, “No, it’s for your health.” But she didn’t move from the tub of whips, still trying to make her decision on them.
The trio then moved toward the back of the garden center, I’m not sure if they decided to buy a pomlázka or not. I was half inclined to run after them and better explain the pomlázka tradition as I understood it, but I didn’t. I didn’t know exactly what I’d say, and I didn’t want to come across like a know-it-all just because I’d lived in Prague for a few years. I bought my flowers and headed home on foot.
I replayed the incident in my head. I thought it was interesting that the American woman was content to accept the explanation from the Czech couple. Meanwhile, her daughter and the friend had obviously heard about the whipping tradition at school or from Czech friends and had already formed a stronger, more negative reaction to the tradition. Similarly, when I first discussed Czech Easter with my teenage students or Czech girlfriends, most of them highlighted the chauvinistic aspect of the tradition.
It wasn’t until a neighbor gave me an unwelcome whipping few years ago that I changed the way I thought about the otherwise benevolent Czech Easter tradition. I wrote the column “What’s Easter without a whipping?” about the experience and when I reread the story, it makes me hope that my daughter might have a chance to experience the brighter side of Czech Easter: the labor-intense efforts of hand-painting real eggs; decorating the home and preparing the garden for spring; and the warm hospitality offered year after year by generations of Czech women on the morning of Easter Monday. I also hope that my two young sons will come to respect and carry on the Easter tradition as their father does, honoring the importance of the holiday as a day to visit family, friends, and neighbors, without necessarily carrying a whip.
When I offered to take the children down to the garden center to pick out a pomlázka, at first, Anna Lee refused, saying that only the boys do the whipping. She’d wait to pour water on them in the afternoon (as another part of the tradition decrees). Surprised by her sudden maturity, I offered to help her make a basket full of treats that she could pass out at her grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s house when we go for our Easter visit. She excitedly agreed. Once we got to the garden center and she saw the pomlázky that the boys selected, I could tell she wanted one too. We ended up leaving with one for each child. As I cautioned the boys against swatting each other or me with them on our way home, the older man behind the counter said, “Oh, woman, of course they can swat you. It’s the Czech way.”
At the moment, the kids are downstairs making their own pomlázky for Anna Lee’s baby dolls. They’re using saplings that Anna clipped from the empty lot behind our house and tying left-over red and gold Christmas ribbons on to the whips. While these pomlázky might not be authentic, they are colorful and original. It makes me wonder if the American woman at the garden center ended up buying any pomlázky, perhaps to use in her own way as a decorative spring staff to place between the dyed eggs, Easter bunnies and woven baskets. Part of me is sorry that I didn’t make the effort to communicate with her. I feel like I let the Czech part of my family down. Hopefully I’ll bump into her after Easter at a gymnastics class. I can find out firsthand her impressions of Czech Easter, pomlázky, water buckets, blown eggs and all.