Culture Shock: Slovak Easter traditions can bother unwilling women

As a native-born Slovak, it never occurred to me that there was anything striking about the way we celebrate one of the biggest of all Christian festivities, Easter. The suspicion that there was something peculiar about some of our customs only came when I was first confronted with the bewildered looks of foreign visitors to our country who obviously could not understand how they had managed to survive. And though these guests did not ask directly, they all seemed to wonder what the point of our ancient practices could possibly be.  

Easter traditions in Slovakia.Easter traditions in Slovakia. (Source: TASR)

It is difficult to understand, I admit, why a young girl dressed up in the national costume should be screaming with apparent enthusiasm while being chased by a bunch of young men who are trying to catch her and throw her in a nearby creek. But such scenes - I promise you- are now rarely seen in modern Slovakia.

An inevitable part of our Easter fun stems from a special willow cane which is hand-woven and decorated with colourful ribbons. Men pursue women brandishing the light branch, called a "korbáč" in Slovak, and use it to "whip" women on the legs when they catch up with them.

According to the traditional ritual, the ribbons on the cane, one of which is added by each victim, testifies to the number of girls and women a lad has managed to soak or whip. In turn for the happy bath and the enjoyable whipping of legs, girls give away hand-painted eggs, or chocolate eggs to young boys. The adults are usually offered a drink of spirits. While some parts of the genuine ritual are no longer observed, the drinking still remains on the list of inevitables nationwide. If you are lucky you can see the traditional Easter in villages. But even there the tradition has been adjusted to a more modern approach. In the cities, of course, people have always had the tendency to neglect folklore.

If I could speak for the women of this wonderful country, I would definitely say that if some progressive national assembly suddenly decided that the Easter Monday craze would be dropped forever, we would all be for it. Just imagine that you have spent the whole weekend shopping for food to be able to prepare all the necessary dishes for Easter. Common throughout Slovakia, for example, is the dish of potato salad and smoked ham, which is cut in thin slices and served on a plate. Every good housewife also bakes at least three sorts of cakes or pastry. When all tasks are done and finished on early Monday morning, women are usually simply too exhausted to resist the water violence effectively. They feel lucky if they manage to sneak out of the bed while the males of the house are still asleep because by male standards it is thought to be the greatest fun if they can attack the unwary victim with a bucketful of cold water in her bed. During the morning, the male relatives and friends ring the doorbell and repeat the ceremony of splash-and-whip again and again. As a woman you have to make sure that you have enough dry things to change into because you never know how many visits you can expect.

One variety of late 20th-century "whipper" has gotten, thank God, a bit more practical. He no longer carries a bucket of water with him. Instead he asks the lady for a cup, fills it with cold water, and then splashes it in her face. The whipping is culturally in retreat as well. Originally thought to keep women fertile, healthy and fresh for the rest of the year, our men are not so sure about that anymore.

In most areas of Slovakia to be a fully equipped whipper you have to have a small bottle of perfume in your pocket. To spray a few drops of perfume on the hair of the fairer sex is considered the final phase of a successful whipping turn.

Easter in Slovakia is loved by men and hated by the women. Never in my life have I met a woman who would praise this tradition. If possible, some women even choose to leave their homes for Easter weekend, and spend it in peace with friends who also find traditional Slovak Easter a little too much to handle.

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