Monday, October 21, 2013

CZECH REPUBLIC: HOLIDAYS AND CELEBRATIONS


New Year’s Day / Restoration Day of the Independence Czech State (January 1):  Most Czechs like to close their year or bring in the new year – depending on how you look at it – with the usual ways that other countries do it.  Elaborate parties held in bars, clubs, and restaurants are very popular, and many of these places have special New Year’s specials on prices and dishes on their menu.  Some people who prefer not to spend their evening in the hustle and bustle of the bar crowd may opt for saner activities such as theatre performances or the opera. There is also a lot of live music and concerts taking place but many of these sell out quickly, so people have to buy tickets well in advance.  But regardless, most adults adhere to the tradition of toasting champagne at the stroke of midnight, followed by fireworks and other pyrotechnic reverie. It also happens to be Restoration Day, the day that Czechoslovakia separated into Czech Republic and Slovakia (also sometimes referred to as the Velvet Divorce).


Easter Monday (varies): Easter is always celebrated for two days in the Czech Republic: both Sunday and Monday. During the Communist years of Czechoslovakia, the holiday was relegated to being a holiday about spring. And even in the post-Communist era, and in respect to the fact that most Czechs aren’t that religious, it took a while for the Christian-based traditions to slowly return.  One tradition you’ll find is highly-decorated, hand-painted Easter eggs.  Another tradition is to take pussywillow and braid them together to form a whip. The boys would go caroling on Easter Monday and symbolically whip the girls on their legs (and possibly may also throw a little water on them as well – another tradition in certain areas). Yeah, I’m sure the girls just really looked forward to this. It used to be that farmer’s wives would use the whip to whip not only the livestock but also everyone else in the house. (Something tells me, this tradition actually lasted for far more days than just these two.)


Labor Day (May 1):  The Czech Republic celebrates Labor Day on the customary day for many of the world’s countries. Of course, most people have this day off of work, and government offices and schools are closed for the day.  Many cities will hold parades, and politicians always feel compelled to give speeches regarding the state of labor at that time. Just yesterday in The Prague Post (“The Czech Republic’s English-language Newspaper”), there was an article about how the Czech Republic is the third-worst European country when it comes to slavery (just after Albania and Montenegro).  It not only mentioned foreign workers who have had their papers taken away and only working for food and accommodation, but also the number of Czechs who are taken to other countries and forced to work under similar conditions. 

Liberation Day (May 8):  This holiday marks the end of the European involvement in WWII in 1945 (also known as VE Day).  Most of the traditions on this day are memorial services, headed by various government leaders. The president heads one of the largest memorial services in Prague.


Saints Cyril and Methodius Day (July 5): Saints Cyril and Methodius were two monks who were often attributed as creating the Glagolitic and Cyrillic alphabets (the same alphabet used by Russian and other languages).  In many of the Slavic countries, these two are commemorated as national saints.  The holiday was originally on March 9, but Pope Pius IX moved the date to July 5.


Jan Hus Day (July 6): Jan Hus was a religious reformer living before Calvin or Luther. He had a lot of problems with the Catholic Church at the time, aligning his ideas against the Church’s regarding ecclesiology (a theological term meaning the origin of Christianity in relationship to Jesus, salvation, its leadership, etc.), the Eucharist (also known as Holy Communion), and other topics. Obviously the church doesn’t like dissidents, and after a trial, he was burned at the stake in 1415. Jan Hus wasn’t just a theologian and martyr: he also introduced some important additions to the written Czech language in the form of diacritic marks. The hacek and accent marks over certain letters reformed the language into what we are familiar with today.

St. Wenceslas Day (September 28): Wenceslas I (also spelled Wenceslaus) was the Duke of Bohemia; and yes, it’s the same Wenceslas as in the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” His younger brother assassinated him in 935, stemming from an argument between the two and later took the role as Duke himself. Many towns and cities will hold street festivals in honor of St. Wenceslas, which include food, drink, games for kids, cultural displays, and many restaurants will have a special St. Wenceslas Day menu.  Museums and galleries may also open their doors to allow people to come visit for free. 


Independent Czechoslovak State Day (October 28):  This is the day that the state of Czechoslovakia was created in 1918.  (61 years later, I was born on this day.) The creation of the country of Czechoslovakia was created out of the end of WWI, with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  It would also find solidarity at the end of WWII when they banded together to oppose the German occupancy. However, this day isn’t really celebrated with the vigor of other independence days. Czechs mostly spend this day relaxing in their own ways with no parades or large festivities. A few politicians may make a speech here and there, mostly about the importance of looking back and remembering their history and their future together. 

Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day (November 17):  There are two major events that took place which poses as the basis for this holiday.  The first is the student demonstration against the Nazi occupation in 1939, and the second are the 1989 demonstrations that acted as the beginning of the Velvet Revolution.  Because both of these demonstrations were student-led, this day is sometimes referred to as World Students Day, which stresses the importance of non-violent political change. 


Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (December 24-25):  Gifts are often placed under the Christmas tree that is brought in and set up during the afternoon of Christmas Eve.  They’re opened later that evening – which really cuts down on the amount of time to be poked and prodded and peeked at.  At the end of Christmas dinner, usually consisting of roasted carp and fish soup (which is odd that the food of choice is seafood, given this is a landlocked country), a bell is rung, signifying that it’s time to open presents. And of course it wouldn’t be Christmas without its array of sweet treats. Another tradition is that they like to make predictions for the coming year using different traditions based in superstition, such as a girl throwing her shoes over her shoulder and if it points towards the door, it means she’ll get married soon.  Since most Czech people are non-religious, its original Christian meanings are often generally substituted for generosity and good will. 

St. Stephen’s Day (December 26): Often referred to as the Second Day of Christmas. It’s a Christian feast day in honor of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.  In the carol “Good King Wenceslas,” the lyrics speak of how he trudged through the rough winter weather to give alms to peasants on this day. (The familiar melody for this carol incidentally is from a 13th-century Finnish songbook and the lyrics are about spring. Some of these songs/poems are also found in the poetry used in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, one of my all-time favorite works.)

Up next: art and literature

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