The Easter holidays are just behind the corner, so it's about time we talk about the sheer wonder and awkwardness of the Czech Easter holidays and arguably their most shocking aspect to foreign visitors: the famous "pomlázka".
Let’s be honest here: Pomlázka is a godsend if you run food tours in Prague (or any tours) like us. Just saw the waiter drop your entire order on the floor so you know you have 20 minutes to kill? Want to invigorate the group? Want to give a piece of information about the Czechs your guests will DEFINITELY remember? You whip out the good ole’ pomlázka. Works every time. Trust me.
Before I get to explain this old Czech Easter tradition, just bear in mind two things. (1) Tradition. Just like the Fiddler on the friggin’ Roof, you usually don’t mess with it. Until you do. So don’t judge, okay? Most Czechs have just grown up with it and never give it a second though, and only realize how strange and awkward that tradition is when they try to explain it to a non-native. And (2) the Dutch have the Black Peter, and that’s even worse. Yes, we’ll take a low bar if we can comfortably overcome it, and yes, we’re not strangers to diverting people’s attention to somebody else’s dirty laundry.
What is a pomlázka?
So what exactly is a pomlazka, we hear you ask? The pomlazka is an old pagan tradition celebrated on Easter Monday. It's a very old tradition (with written documents mentioning it in the 1300s and earlier) that probably predates the arrival of Christianity in the Czech Republic. On Easter Monday, young men walk with long, flexible whips made out of willow twigs, usually decorated with colorful ribbons, and spank the girls with them on their behinds. The tradition has definitely survived to this age and we are afraid that we cannot restrict its application to the backlands of the Czech countryside - it's alive in Prague, too, although much more prevalent in the villages.
The how and why of pomlázka
Think of it as trick or treating with a fairly mild form of violence against women. How does it work? A group of boys (originally wrote a “gang” here, but that sounds too rough) or men walk from door to door, the daughter walks out, and the boys sing a tune and whip her on her behind. That takes about 20 seconds usually. Having received the spanking, the girl say “thank you” (of course she does) and gives the boys decorated eggs to drive that metaphor home. In many parts of the country (looking at you, Moravia) this is complemented with a healthy dose of alcohol shots for those old enough to drink.
Sure, the standard reaction to this is: what? and why? Well, the pomlázka is really a celebration of fertility. The spanking prevents the women from “drying up” during the rest of the year - that’s why they say “thank you” after the spanking has been administered. It is an “obligation” for the men to whip the women - yes, they are responsible for their reproductive health for the rest of the year. (And no, nobody whips thee boys’ nether regions, thank you for asking. This custom comes from a time when men had obviously incredible sperm counts, and whenever a couple could not conceive, it was clearly the woman’s fault.)
So yes, I know what you’re thinking. This is so wrong. Especially in the #metoo era. Preadolescent boys and tipsy guys whipping girls and getting thanked for it. I completely understand. But most Czechs simply see it as a tradition without thinking too much about it. And sure, some, if not most, women, secretly or openly despise the whole process. (Disclaimer: this was written by a guy.)
The full picture
I also feel I should add four more things for context.
The whipping is mostly consensual. Don’t want to get whipped? You probably won’t. There’s not a safe word or anything: you just either don’t open the door when the bell rings, or simply stay out of the scene.
We’re not talking “12 years a slave, put-your-shoulder-in-it whipping”. This is about symbolic pats. I honestly don’t think anyone gets hurt. (Although I must confess that while researching this, I have seen a few YouTube videos where the guys clearly had a few shots too many and the scene was borderline uncomfortable to watch.)
Getting whipped is a sign of “popularity”. I know this may sound strange, but not getting whipped can be a bit like not getting a Valentine’s card.
Some women genuinely want to be whipped on Easter. But enough about my mom. No, seriously, there’s a lot of superstition around this, and some women take the whipping as a thing that will keep them healthy. (And my mom really calls me every Easter Monday to ask me if I get over there and whip her. This sadly isn’t a joke. Just ask my therapist.)
Now, I know this still feels wrong. And I agree. But then again - I see our little JJ running around with one of those small whips (oh yeah, you can buy them everywhere before Easter), and I cannot help but think it is the cutest thing ever. Tradition carried on over to the next generation, right? (Cue the Czech anthem.)
So there you have it. The Czech pomlázka. Now you know. You can buy the whips if you think they’re cute and/or weird, and it’s a great souvenir. And if you see guys chasing girls with whips on Easter Monday, don’t call the cops. It’s okay. And most importantly, remember: the Dutch have the Black Peter. Now that’s what I call atrocious.
PS: There is a great web page in English that describes the Czech Easter tradition and even includes some recipes here.