Friday, April 6, 2012

Veľká noc - Easter in Slovakia

Slovakia has some rather peculiar traditions for Easter, which are definitely worthy of a blog post. For starters, Easter (Vel'ká noc - which means "great/big night") is a really important holiday here, perhaps the most important catholic holiday of the year. That they've managed to turn it into a 4-5 day weekend is proof of this. In the US, nobody really gives a shit about Easter. Once you're too old to go Easter egg hunting (i.e. 8 or 9), it's all over, and the only thing that matters is Spring Break. And of course, once you've grown up, graduated from university, and joined the workforce, Spring Break becomes a fading, distant memory. Or, if you are like me and worked for the University of California for 10 years, that meant that you got to have Caesar Chavez day off, which sometimes falls near Easter, thus making it infinitely more exciting than Easter because it was a day off! (Plus, Caesar Chavez was truly a cool guy, and quite worthy of a holiday, in my book). But I digress! Rooted in medieval folk ritual, Slovakia's quaint Easter traditions make Easter in America seem positively milquetoast.

According to tradition, packs of testosterone-fueled boys set out Monday morning and roam the town, going to the homes of all the girls they like or know. They barge into the house, locate the girl, and drag her out front where they dump a bucket of water over her, or drench her with a garden hose, clothes on and everything. Sometimes, they'll simply go inside and carry her into the shower or bathtub. Brothers and fathers will get involved too, and are likely to be the ones who let the other guys inside.

Then, while the girl is soaking wet, the boys will spray her with copious amounts of noxiously cheap perfume. The guys may also carry around a specially made willow stick, called a korbáč, which is used to whip the girl on the rear or the legsOnce the boys are done, they are invited by the girl's family to stay, where their efforts are rewarded with piles of food and alcohol. The family may also give them chocolate and/or money. The boys then move on to their next victim and repeat, until they're too drunk to stand up.

Of course, this tradition has waned quite considerably over the years, especially in more urban areas. In the old days, guys would have to chase the girls through the village and, once they caught them, submerge or toss them in the nearest creek. Today, a woman is much more likely to be awakened in the morning by a snickering brother or father pouring a glass of water in her ear, or perhaps spraying her with scented water from a flask. You're obviously not going to see women being chased through the streets of Bratislava. However, the drinking and eating remains integral to the holiday.

Naturally, women have become increasingly weary of this tradition. Being drenched and whipped all morning while men get to sit around eating and drinking gets old after a while. Terezia says that traditionally, women could exact revenge on the men the following day, but the chance to do so didn't always present itself, since by then everyone was back at work or school. But while many women claim to dread this tradition, Terezia says that for teenage girls it becomes something of a popularity contest. The more guys who come to a girl's house to drench her, the more popular she is, and she can come to school the next morning and brag about how many visitors she had.

But what the hell is the point of all this? This was believed to cleanse and purify the woman, preserve her beauty and vitality, while the whipping is somehow supposed to make her more fertile. According to custom, "Mid-April was celebrated as a time of rebirth: processions were used to drive away evil spirits, houses were decorated with vegetation (the egg survives today as a symbol of life), and whipping and water were employed to ensure a young woman's fertility and beauty. It was believed that the vitality from the young twigs entwined in the whip would flow into the woman's body." Never mind that this tradition sounds a bit like what you'd get if a bunch of monosyllabic, backwards baseball cap-wearing fratboys sat around thinking of ways to make Easter more exciting.

The miracles of medieval science: hitting a woman with a Korbáč to make her more fertile. 
The part where the family feeds the young men who just drenched their daughter(s) actually isn't so strange in the broader context of Slovak culture. Slovaks are pre-programmed to feed any guests who walk through their door. Whenever you're invited into the homes of family or close friends, they will instantly run off to the kitchen, fill up a platter with cold cuts, slices of sausage, or little sandwiches, and bring that out with some shot glasses and borovicka, or whatever booze they have lying around. It's futile to tell them not to, it's pointless to refuse; they will bring out some food, and you will eat and drink. This kind of hospitality is deeply embedded in Slovak culture. (Now, if only it could become a cultural norm here for restaurant waitstaff to act friendly and personable towards patrons!). So, even though the origins of this tradition may have dictated that the families of the women feed the unruly packs of young men, they would likely feel obligated to feed them anyway, regardless of what's going on.

At any rate, while kids in the US innocently hunt for pastel-dyed or candy-filled eggs that they've been told have been hidden by a creepy man-sized rabbit, in Slovakia, roving gangs of young men hunt for girls to whip and douce with water. And I have to emphasize, Easter really is an important holiday here. So important, in fact, that as I write on this Friday morning, Bratislava's streets are already deserted to the point where I think I just saw a tumbleweed blowing down the sidewalk. With everyone presumably having gone back home for the long weekend, it's like a ghost town here!

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