After one of Prague’s snowiest winters in more than a decade, this past week’s warmer temperatures thawed the last of the snowdrifts and brought much-needed spring cheer. During my first spring in Prague, I remember an American friend remarking that spring in the Czech Republic was enough to make a single guy’s hormones rage. “All those gorgeous Czech women and all those bare legs,” he commented. When we sat on the steps of the cathedral at Náměstí Míru one afternoon in early spring, we reveled at the arrival of warmer weather each in our own way. I marveled at the budding trees on the square, while he goggled at the budding girls.
As a population that’s historically accustomed to braving harsh winters, it’s not only Czech women who greet spring with a particular fervor. In many Czech villages, there is a long-standing community tradition of lighting fire to an effigy symbolizing winter (usually a doll made of straw dressed in a woman’s clothing) and setting her off down a nearby river, saying farewell to winter and welcome to spring. There are also countless spring festivals and fairs celebrating the upcoming Easter season that feature traditional Czech handicrafts, such as intricately decorated gingerbread cookies, hand-painted eggs and hand-woven pomlázky (willow switches).
In addition to the symbolic traditions and handicrafts that accompany spring, Czechs also delight in touting out their garden tools and flower boxes and dusting off last year’s sandbox toys. Having grown up where land was plentiful and farms sprawled for miles, but were often left unplanted, I’m always impressed by the compact, bountiful gardens found in the Czech Republic. Here, even apartment balconies can boast productive herb and tomato gardens during the spring and summer, and many residents of Prague have summer cottages or at least a family plot for weekend gardening.
Now that we live in the countryside, the advent of spring also means that I pass more villagers walking on the country roads, both for leisure and as a means of transportation, laundry has reappeared on hanging lines in my neighbors’ gardens, and the garden center on the street below our house has a steady stream of customers. Driving to and from Anna’s preschool, I pass tractors working the fields. When I see the first tiny shoots of green popping through the dark soil I’m amazed at how quickly last week’s snow-covered earth has become something fertile.
The extended daylight hours have brought more people outdoors to do yard tasks after work or to congregate in the parks. During a late afternoon this week, the kids on our street ran as a pack from garden to garden, with the older kids leading the games and the younger ones chasing to catch up. The roadside is littered with bikes, scooters and motorcycles abandoned at a moment’s notice when something more interesting, like an empty snail shell, grabs the group’s attention. Although last week Anna had been content to sit and color or work a puzzle, this week she’s constantly asking me when she can go out to meet her friends or has been busy planning games to play in the garden.
The excitement of spring is evident at Anna’s preschool as well. On the first calendar day of spring this year, Anna Lee came home with the pronouncement that she needed three “blowed up” eggs for school the following day. She was excited because her teacher had told them they’d be decorating real vyfoukali vajíčka (eggshells with their insides blown out) for Easter, and she wondered how we’d manage to blow them up. Radek explained the process of blowing out the egg’s innards, and she watched with delight a few days later as he prepared four eggs for her. I remember my German grandmother doing this on occasion, although as a child, my parents always used hard-boiled eggs for us to color and decorate at home.
When I visited Anna’s school later in the week, I saw the beautifully decorated eggs lined up to dry. Each child’s egg had been colored with a wax crayon then painted with bright paint. Afterward, either designs were scratched into the paint with a straight pin or the painted eggs were decorated with bits of tissue paper in spring shapes. Anna had a delicate yellow chick on her egg that she was quite proud of. I couldn’t imagine making one of the creations without breaking my egg, and I didn’t know how the children had managed to produce 24 unbroken finished products. I figured that Anna’s teacher must have endless patience or else extra-clever hands although she swore the children did the eggs by themselves.
In addition to the Easter egg preparations, Anna’s classroom was filled with spring flowers painted on the windows, tissue-paper animals and strings of spring garland that the children had made. Some of Anna’s classmates had even brought hand-decorated eggs and art projects made from pussy willow branches to add to the room’s festive decorations.
On one particularly warm afternoon this week, we headed to downtown Prague to see the Easter market on Staroměstské Náměstí. Unlike the Christmas market, which was jam-packed with tourists when we visited, the Easter market was nearly empty while we were there. Unrushed by crowds, we took our time to admire the large Easter tree, festooned with paper eggs and colorful streamers, bought our first ice-cream of the season and checked out the vendors’ wares. Even though I’ve seen the hand-decorated eggs in the Czech markets for years, I’m still impressed by the intricacy and the skill involved in designing and painting the eggs. Although I knew the prices would be cheaper if we waited to buy the eggs at a village fair outside the city, I was as anxious as the children were to commemorate the spring afternoon, and so each child chose one egg to bring home to our Easter tree.
At the market, we also visited the petting station, where Oliver stood in awe watching a donkey nuzzle two baby goats, and the children’s corner, where Anna made a spring craft. We finished off the day by watching a children’s performance about Mrs. Hen and Mr. Rooster and how they decorated eggs together. Although my legs were already tired from walking through the city, the children were spell-bound by the traditional Czech songs, colorful costumes and Easter theme and we stayed until the end of the performance, when Anna got her picture taken with the actors.
I’ve read that the weather may turn colder again this weekend, yet I’m hoping that the first taste of spring will buoy my spirits through the chillier days ahead. It’s not quite time to bring out my skirts, although the budding magnolia bushes in our garden indicate that those days may not be too far off.