As strange Czech traditions go, one of my personal favorites is pálení čarodějnic (witch burning) which occurs each year on April 30th. Although the historic tradition of burning witches at the stake ended by the 18th century, many European countries, including the Czech Republic, still say goodbye to winter and welcome spring by burning “the witch of winter” as an effigy on a bonfire. The holiday is six months after Halloween and falls squarely between the spring equinox and summer solstice. It’s an evening primed for magic, or at least, for staying outside well past bedtime.
If you like to dress in black, wear a witch’s hat and roast sausages over a blazing fire, the annual night of witch burning brings communities together for a relaxed spring evening outdoors. Festivities include bonfires, games for children, grilling for all ages and plenty of beer. Outdoor concerts and live drumming, prizes for the best witch costume and as many buřty (fat, greasy hotdog-type sausages) as your stomach can handle are common aspects of these parties. It’s not Halloween exactly, but in my eyes it’s a more community-centered substitute.
Traditionally harsh Czech winters kept people indoors and out of touch with their neighbors, thus the emergence of milder weather was a time for celebration on multiple levels. In a tradition that likely has roots in the pagan ritual of throwing the goddess Mořena into the river at the end of winter, an effigy of a witch, usually a doll made of straw or rags, is placed atop a pyre of lumber that is assembled by the neighborhood fire department or town officials. Before dusk falls, a match is thrown onto the pyre, and the witch goes up in flames. While the witch disappears within minutes, the bonfire and festivities can last for hours.
The largest witch burning party in the Czech Republic is an all-day affair called Čarodějnice na Ladronce sponsored by the district of Prague 6 with prizes for the best “Miss Witch” costume, fireworks, campfire songs led by a guitar and a smattering of witch-specific activities including dance workshops and crafts. Although I’ve never been to the party at Ladronka Park, I’ve walked past the posters in Prague 6 for the past several weeks. The event is free, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to see large-scale revelry. My personal loyalty, however, lies with a more local tradition.
Our village of Statenice hosts a čarodějnice evening that begins with a scavenger walk through the woods in the late afternoon. My family typically walks from our house about a kilometer down into the Statenice village center, where my children pair up with older children from our street and go through the scavenger hunt on their own. Locals from the Čarodějnice od Juliany group sponsor the event, which starts near the town hall and leads through the woods to the town’s soccer field. Along with other volunteers, witches are stationed throughout the woods to ask children questions about nature, biology and to test their practical knowledge of animals. At each station, the children earn a stamp on a card. At the end of the walk, they can turn in their stamped card in exchange for a buřt (sausage for grilling), juice and a chocolate tatranka wafer. While the children traipse through the woods, the adults stand around the bonfire roasting their own sausages on a smaller secondary fire and waiting for dusk. Last year there was a drum band and a stand selling beer, soft drinks and chips. I know that neighboring villages have their own witch burning events with a similar schedule of activities.
In addition to giving children an extra dose of Halloween-style dress up fun, the witch burning night also marks the unofficial start of the warm-weather grilling season. In our neighborhood, I can sense the change already. This past week, our neighbor’s son, whom we have rarely seen since last autumn, has greeted my children each afternoon when they come from school. Together the children hop on their bikes and ride up and down our dead-end street until dusk falls. One night this past week, I took Samuel, Oliver and their friend on their bikes while I jogged to the next village. The boys wanted to ride all the way to the village of Roztoky, but on the promise of ice cream they returned home in time for dinner, baths and bedtime stories. Now that the days are growing longer, bedtime has been pushed back in order to accommodate more hours of outdoor playtime.
Samuel came racing home the other night to tell me that he’d gotten an invitation to eat meat at our neighbors whom he’d seen grilling on their terrace. Radek told Samuel that he could go to our neighbors only if he promised that next time he’d offer them a taste of what we were having for dinner. Samuel agreed and came back happy and well-fed.
With only two months left in the school year, I can also sense that my students are ready for a change of pace. On warmer days, their attention span lags, and they’ve begun to ask when we can have our lessons outside. Anna has started trying to wear shorts to school (with thin pairs of tights underneath) and the boys are wearing short sleeves and light jackets. Spring fever is in full force.
I have long believed that spring in the Czech Republic is one of the country’s best times of year. From witch’s night to Labor Day (May 1) and Liberation Day (May 8), the season has several one-day holidays, perfect for picnicking as a family or taking a walk in the countryside. This year my father flies into the Czech Republic on the morning of April 30th. The children are excited to show their grandfather the scavenger hunt, and my mother can’t wait for him to see the blazing bonfire.
Thirteen years ago, I spent my first witch’s night at Pankrác Park. Radek and I had only been on a couple of dates, and I remember thinking how punk everyone looked at the park that night dressed in black with ghoulish makeup and scary costumes. Now I see the evening as a local community event with most of the activities geared toward families with children. The wildest activity I saw last year might have been parents roasting two sausages at once. We spoke with a few English-speaking families from our village that also seemed to appreciate the warmth they felt celebrating this unusual Czech holiday with the locals. At the least, it’s a great excuse to get some extra wear out of your Halloween costume.
How does your family celebrate pálení čarodějnic?