Monday, November 17, 2014

Czech Holiday Costumes & Customs (Musaion, Prague)

In addition to showing folk art, costumes and tools, the Musaion (Ethnographic Museum) also had exhibits related to the major religious holidays. Many of the costumes and practices were derived from pre-Christian traditions, including themes of nature and respect for ancestors.  The signage at the museum didn't include specific details about the particular costumes, so I did a bit of internet research and turned up a number of unusual Czech folk traditions. 

Here we see costumes that are worn at Shrovetide (or Masopust), the season before Easter.  This holiday celebrates the turning of winter to spring, with themes of fertility, health, and a good harvest.  It is also the season before Lent, so there is a good deal of feasting in preparation for the Lenten fast.  The Shrovetide carnivals include a range of costumes and masks, as well as feasting on pork and other holiday foods.  In the Hlinecko area of eastern Bohemia, Shrovetide processions go from house to house:
Village men and boys, disguised in masks that depict traditional characters (red masks for boys and black for married men), go from door to door around the village, accompanied by a brass band. The procession stops at each house and four of the men perform a ritual dance, with the householder’s permission, to secure a rich harvest and prosperity for the family. In return, the masked men receive treats and collect a fee. A symbolic ‘Killing of the Mare’ ritual takes place after the last house has been visited, during which a mare is condemned for its alleged sins and a humorous and topical testament is read out. Following the ‘execution’ the mare is revived with alcohol, signalling the commencement of a dance as the masks frolic with onlookers. via UNESCO
You can see pictures and video of the Shrovetide processions here.

Here is another Shrovetide mask.  Along with the mare described above, classic characters in the Shrovetide carnival include (among others) the master of ceremonies, a bear, the Turk, the Spotted Man and his wife, the straw man, and the chimney sweep.  I'm not sure which character, if any, this mask represents. 

Easter mannequin and dolls (Moravian)

Czech Easter traditions include making elaborately decorated eggs, called krasliceKraslice can be batik dyed, painted, carved, or decorated with straw or wire.  You can see more about how they are made here and here.  I didn't get good photos of the kraslice displayed at the museum, but you can see beautifully decorated kraslice here and here.  (This is making me feel a bit embarrassed about my years spent coloring eggs with PAAS dye pellets and vinegar.) 

Easter Sunday is spent decorating eggs, but come Easter Monday, Czech boys go out to thrash girls and women with a pomlázka (a switch made of braided pussy-willow branches)Boys and men go door to door in the town to beat women's and girls' legs and buttocks with the pomlázka while singing an Easter carol; the girls reward them with a decorated egg, candy, or in more recent years, a shot of brandy or vodka, and tie a ribbon around the pomlázka.  In some regions, the girls and women are doused with buckets of water.  Ostensibly, this is to ensure fertility and beauty for the girls and women in the coming year.  Some believe the tradition derives from older customs to beat out disease and bad spirits.  I wonder about the gendered nature of the practice, though.  Some claim that it is all done in fun, with women eager for the whipping, while in other accounts, women give a less positive response to the tradition.  While the whipping might be symbolic, one article indicates that, at least in the past, the object was to draw blood.

Advent begins on the first Sunday in December and focuses on spirituality and preparation for Christmas.  This Advent costume reminded me of the plague doctor masks worn in the medieval era (as well as the Spy v. Spy cartoons).  In fact, it is the mask worn on St. Lucia day (or St. Lucy or St. Lucille), Dec. 13.  St. Lucia refused to wed, was sentenced to go into a brothel, and had her throat cut when she resisted prostitution.  (On a side note, I had no idea how grisly many of the saints' stories are -- I learned several horrific saints' tales while on this trip.)  St. Lucia day included a ban on certain types of labor (e.g., no spinning or plucking feathers).  
Lucys, women in white coats with candles in their hands, walked around homes to see if anyone was violating the ban. Their faces were covered with a mask made of wood and paper similar to a stork’s beak and it made an unpleasant clicking sound. Lucys banged on doors and announced: “I’m coming, coming to sip the night away.” via
Lest you think this is the creepiest Czech Advent tradition, let's not forget Perchta.
She wore a fur coat inside out, rabbit skin on her head, held a wooden knife in one hand and a pail with pea plants in the other. She would scare children by threatening them that she would pierce their tummies and stuff them with the pea plants, if they were too self-indulgent. via
(To be fair, belly-slitting Perchta seems to be a common folk character in European countries -- she would stuff rubbish in the bellies of those who were lazy or failed to follow feast traditions.  My internet searches turned up this intriguing article, in case you want to read a fuller analysis.)  It's interesting how many of the Advent characters (e.g., St. Nicholas) take a role of rewarding good behavior or punishing bad behavior.
This period of preparations [Advent] is accompanied by figures with masks related to the way of thinking of Pre-Christian times.  They appear in several groups of customs as witnesses of human conscience with punishments for committed crimes and rewards for promises into the future -- Barbara, Lucia, Nicholas, and with them the devils, angels, various demons and animal masks. [from the Musaion signage]

In the photo above, you can see one of the animal/demon masks, with elaborate ram's horns and all-too-realistic teeth.  (The twinkling lights are reflections in the glass from the Nativity scenes behind me.)

I can't tell if this is meant to be an animal mask, or merely a caricature of one of the human characters, but masks often had a moving tongue, apparently. 

While St. Nicholas and St. Lucia may be acting as "witnesses of human conscience", other characters, such as St. Ambrose, seem unrelated to matters of good or bad behavior:
On December 7, the feast of St. Ambrose, a tradition was respected at the point where the church was dedicated to this saint. One man dresses up as Ambrose in a long white shirt and black pointy hat with a veil over his face. He carried a bundle of sweets in one hand and a broom covered with paper in the other. At dusk, Ambrose waited for children at the church. The children bravely screamed at him, causing Ambrose to chase them around the church. Here and there he dropped the sweets on the floor. Whoever picked them up got a swat with a broom. via
In looking at the Czech holiday costumes, I thought about how few such folk traditions we have in America (apart from those imported from other countries).  We certainly have our share of opportunities to dress up and celebrate, from Halloween to St. Patrick's Day, but there are few folk characters of the sort found in European traditions in our pantheon, other than Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.  I don't know that this is a bad thing, to be sure; quite a few folk traditions may be ill-fitting for the needs and customs of modern societies (I'm looking at you, pomlázka!).  But I am intrigued by the rich, shared cultural heritage embodied by the costumes in the Musaion, and, as David Sedaris notes in his discussion of the Dutch Santa, they make for a really great story. 

P.S. You might also enjoy these photos of the Wild Man costumes of Europe by Charles Freger.

Next up:  More Czech folk costumes

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating! Only this morning I was telling my son about how we celebrated Advent during my childhood, which led to wondering what Advent was all about (we were not a spiritual household, but did like a bit of domestic ritual). The Lucias I'm familiar with, from books, are the swedish girls who get to wear crowns of blazing candles - not in this health&safety age, surely!