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Burning witches

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On the night of 30 April, the Czech Republic is dotted with hundreds of bonfires during what is known as Pálení čarodějnic, or the Witches’ Night.

The celebration, which has many names and whose origin is not clear, is based on the old custom of lighting fires on the night before 1 May. In the past, the night was surrounded by magic and wizardry and by belief in the special abilities of witches. People believed that evil spirits are stronger than normal on that night, so they performed rites and customs in order to ward off witches and weaken their power. Especially in the Middle Ages, there was a direct association between the powers of witches and the powers of the devil.

The year’s harvest and domestic animals, in particular, had to be protected from witches, though the witch was probably not a primary motif. People protected their homestead from any danger by means of various magical practices throughout the whole year.

The lighting of fires itself is probably a custom taken from elsewhere and a mixture of several festivities. Some sources say there is a link to the Celtic fire festival Beltane, some say the event is related to the 16th- and 17th-century witch trials, during which probably a few hundred women were burnt at the stake. Others say its meaning rests especially in celebrating the end of winter, a season connected with evil spirits and evil forces, and with the arrival of spring.

The custom survived the period of communism when it was tolerated by the regime. These days it’s more of a celebration of spring and an opportunity for people to get together at open-air parties.

Pálení čarodějnic often takes place on a hill, but can also be next to the local fishpond, at a sports grounds, or in front of the local fire house. Usually a few days beforehand men bring wood and build the stake. The most beautiful ones are many metres high and made of long strait logs. It can be a pile of cut-down branches, but you can also see many other various objects waiting to be burnt, including old tables and pallets. Girls then make a witch of old rags and put it at the top of the stake. On the night of 30 April, the stake is lit. There can also be more smaller fires next to the main one for people and especially children to roast sausages and other food there.

Many town halls across the Czech Republic, but also other institutions such as museums and childcare centres, for instance, organise witch burning events. These involve live music, refreshments, sausage (and/or potato, bread etc.) roasting, activities for children, witch marches, contests where the most beautiful or rather the most awful witch is chosen, and so on.

Those living in Prague can visit Ladronka, where the witch party is organised by the Prague 6 town hall. Another is in Řepy next to the local town hall. The sports and leisure facility Fun Island at Císařská louka organises the event Čáry 09, but unlike most of the other events, this one charges an admission fee. Outside Prague, witch parties will take place in many towns and villages across the whole country.

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