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Whipping up Easter festivities

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Boys and men chase girls and women through the streets, whacking them with wooden whips or dousing them with ice-cold water. The female response: reward the men with gifts like vibrant, ornately decorated eggs, money, candy, home-made plum brandy, and a ribbon for their whip. Confused? Shocked? It’s the unique and ancient Czech Easter tradition, and with the holiday approaching, be on the watch for renegade whip-wielders or misguided water attacks.

Traditional Velikonoce festivities involve lots of preparation and extends several days. Packed with symbols and meaning, the holiday tradition has roots in the pre-Christian, pagan times, when people would celebrate the end of winter and the coming of spring, and were originally thought to enhance youthfulness, healthfulness, and fertility. Although the modern celebration has lost most of the romantic undertones of the past, it still remains and endearing and fun event.

Easily the most recognizable symbol of the Velikonoce tradition is the Easter egg, or the kraslice. Symbolizing fertility and new life, these hand-painted eggs are literally works of art, exquisitely decorated in a rainbow of colors: red, blue, purple, green, and yellow. On Easter Sunday, called Neděle velikonoční, women spend the day decorating kraslice to hand out to men the next day, using materials such as bee’s wax, straw, watercolors, onion peels or stickers to achieve the elaborate designs—there are even kraslice competitions held every year around the Czech Republic.

But women are not the busy ones preparing for Easter. three days before Nedele velikonocní, men and boys walk through their town vigorously shaking wooden rattles, or řehtačka, which according to folklore, wards off Judas. Later, on Easter Sunday, men will gather pussywillow branches and spend the day braiding their pomlázka, or wooden whips (the more branches they use, the more difficult it is to create them). In pagan times, the pussywillow wood was thought to bring youth and health to anyone whipped by one; the whipping tradition continues to this day, unfolding around the Czech Republic every Easter Monday.

Easter Monday, sometimes called Whipping Monday, is when the real fun and celebration takes place. Boys and men approach girls and women singing Easter carols and either whipping them with pomlázkas or dousing them in icy water. In doing so, people historically believed that women would be ensured with another year of health, youth and beauty. Women in return would tie a ribbon around the pomlázka and present the men with a beautifully embellished kraslice, candy, a shot of plum brandy, or money.

And for traditional Easter treats, expect to see delicious cakes shaped as lambs and coffee cake called bábovka. Munch on some manzanec as well, which is a cake filled with almonds and raisins with a cross is cut into the top.

If you’re not in the mood to whip your favorite woman or paint delicate kraslice, there are several Easter events around Prague that are sure to enhance the holiday season. The Prague Symphony Orchestra and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra have teamed up to present the Prague Easter Festival, lasting a little more than a week, until 14 April, to celebrate the holiday with music. The performances will be held around the city, from venues like the Churches of Saints Simon and Jude, the Rudolfinum, and the Municipal House, with music from Czech composers like Dvorak, religious songs, and springtime odes. If you prefer something a little more religious, beginning 12 April at 5:00pm, the Basilica of Saint James will also host a slew of religious choral and organ concerts using an 18th century organ.

But the true favorite Czech Easter events are the Easter Markets in Old Town and Wenceslas Squares. Packed with over 100 stalls, the markets offer hand-painted crafts like kraslice, beer mugs, jewelry, posters, cloth, puppets and dolls. Vendors make delicious snacks in front of hungry customers, and the smells of sausage, waffles, pastries waft through the air. The Easter markets will be open daily from 9:00am until 8:00pm until 19 April.

Whether the full-blown Czech Easter tradition of kraslice and pomlázka better suits your Easter celebration, or just a simple stroll through Old Town Square will suffice, Veselé Velikonoce!

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