If you’re Czech and you already know what this is going to be about, I’m not surprised.
One of my favorite stories from my whole time in Czech Republic is about Easter traditions and an unfortunate English lesson about them. I love talking about language faux pas on the blog, but this one was a really, really bad one.
Thankfully, I didn’t make it for once!
It makes sense that as an American English teacher, I’d talk to students about shared holidays and differing traditions. Easter was no different, so I created an interactive Powerpoint I was really happy with. At the time, it was very common that I would reuse my presentations in various lessons. In this case, talking about Easter was relevant in virtually every class, so – prepared, I thought – I began with my first group of the week.
On the board, I had drawn a “T” chart with USA on one side and Czech Republic on the other. I asked students what they knew and asked them to compare with what they’d experienced. We had written things like “Easter bunny,” “egg hunt,” and “Ash Wednesday” in the first column.
Then I asked the students about their traditions. There was an uncomfortable silence that I may or may not have actually noticed at the time.
Finally, a brave young man raised his hand. Tentatively, confidently? I don’t know in hindsight. But I know I wasn’t prepared for what he was about to say.
“I beat my grandmother!” he said enthusiastically.
“What?” I asked. I was dumbfounded. No other way to describe it.
A giggle started up in the class as the students started their vain efforts to explain.
Here’s the long and the short of it.
Easter in Czech Republic is inextricably connected with pomlázky, a “willow whip” that is braided from the branches of the willow and decorated with colorful ribbons. They can be homemade or bought in stores. The day will start with the men of a family lightly hitting the women on their butts with this willow whip while singing a poem. Wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers and all.
This process is supposed to symbolize – you guessed it – youth, health, and fertility. 😀
In a weird caricature of the Halloween poem, the end of the Czech Easter poem asks the women for eggs, and after being “beaten,” they oblige – giving the men dyed hard boiled eggs, one-bite sandwiches, cookies, and eggnog or slivovice they’ve prepared. The men – often in small groups – will then go to other houses to do the same.
Important note: In villages it could be house to house, but elsewhere you will only visit people who you know and are expecting you. Small mercies, am I right?
I’ve met women and girls nowadays that hate this tradition and many, too, that don’t mind it.
Younger girls especially look to find excuses not to be home at this time. I think as time goes on that many sense how patriarchal it looks and feels, albeit in a still very conservative culture. Nonetheless, it can also be seen as a silly tradition that doesn’t *really* hurt anyone. (Bless my feminist yet ambiguously anthropological American heart!)
In this boy’s defense, there is NO good way to translate the concept of this “beating” into English. Believe me, I’ve tried ’em all. Beat, whip, hit, smack… it’s all bad bad bad.
And to be fair, I did ask.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds.” -Chloe’ 2020. In fact, that’s what they all tried to tell me in that first class, but I didn’t – couldn’t – believe them at first. This is a really awkward thing to talk about!
But I will forever maintain I only allow this cuz I get to drink eggnog and eat cookies after. 🙂