Witch Burning Night and May Day

Expats.cz offers suggestions to enjoy these annual events, plus a bonus get out of Prague tip
Witch Burning

“Witch Burning Night” has two possible origins. The first, Beltane, is a Celtic summer festival dating back from when Celtic tribes inhabited this area. Alternatively, it stems from either a Scandinavian or German summer rite, which later became the night of St Walpurga. This explains the event´s other name in English: Walpurgis Night. In Czech the night is also known as Filipojakubská noc (Philip and James Night), which you may find on some promotional material for the evening.

As Christianity spread, what had once been a pagan festival became more a tradition to keep all that was pagan at bay. The fires were lit to ward off witches and part of this process included burning old broom sticks. Today, the night is more an opportunity to get together with friends to build a fire and enjoy the outdoors, which hopefully are by now warmer and with all the vestiges of winter gone. The origins of the day will give you something to talk about while enjoying a beer and roasting buřty (fat Czech sausages) over an open fire.

There are several events being held around Prague, all on April 30:

On Kampa, apart from the bonfire which starts at 8pm, there’s a kids’ program from 5pm to 7pm. At 7:15pm a lantern procession is scheduled. It starts from Mostecká. Refreshments will be available at the site. At Ladronka in Prague 6 there will be live music, a crowning of “Miss Witch” and a record attempt to burn broom sticks. At Wenceslas Park (Park Václava) in Střižkov, Prague 9 there will also be a traditional bonfire and also in Prague 9, Restaurace na bobovce has organized some fun.

If you fancy going out of Prague, or you’re not in the city to begin with, here is a sample of some events happening outside the capital:

In Kladno, at the town stadium, Sletiště, the night’s festivities start at 7pm and include music and refreshments. More information can be found here (in Czech).

Venture north of Prague to Castle Hasištejn, outside Chomotov, and you can take part in the witch burning in medieval surroundings. The cost is 50 CZK and the band COUNTRYRODEO is scheduled to play. Alternatively, head south to picturesque Český Krumlov for a “magical” evening. The afternoon is very kid friendly, with music, costumes and games. More information here.

At the open-air swimming pool in Kamenice nad Lípou in the Vysočina region southwest of Prague, the event starts at 7:30pm. Musical entertainment will be provided by local band NoNET. More info here (in Czech).

If you want to sample witch burning Moravian style, the town of Bukovany has an event starting from 4pm. Further details are available here.

May Day

This year’s May Day unfortunately falls on a Saturday. However, it’s still possible to enjoy some of the traditions associated with it. The official reason for the holiday is Labor Day. Under communism it was an occasion for parades, flag waving and showing solidarity against capitalism – at least officially.  Some political groups and fringe movements still mark the occasion.

Generally, since the Velvet Revolution, the day has been an opportunity for people to enjoy the spring weather. If you or you friends are outside, you may witness one of the oldest and perhaps kitschiest customs: the erection of maypoles (máj or májka in Czech). Czech maypoles are usually made from conifers, especially spruce. Villages compete to see whose maypole is the biggest. Once set aloft, the young people try to bring down the poles from other villages while simultaneously defending their own from similar attacks.

In Prague, there will be a maypole in Střížkov. Otherwise, to truly experience this tradtion, it´s best to head out of the city. Southern Moravia is often recommended as a place where the custom is particularly strong – though that might just be the Bohemian characterization of their neighbors.

A tradition for the more romantically inclined, and one which could be connected with the Czech lands more directly, is the custom of couples visiting the statue of the Czech poet Mácha on Petřin Hill. Karel Hýnek Mácha is among the country’s most celebrated poets. He is usually classified as a Romantic, and his most famous poem Máj (in English) recounts a tragic love affair between a bandit Vilem and a young woman Jarmila, who is raped by Vilem’s father.

According to an article on Czech Radio (Czech only), no one knows why this tradition arose. Editor and historian of Czech literature, Martin Machovec offers an alternative view, that this tradition is based on a misconception of Mácha’s work. “The statue on Petřin Hill is excellent but it´s a lie. Death was as much part of his work. That lie made him a sort of patron saint of young couples in love.”

Perhaps a better way to mark the day is to visit Mácha’s region, located north of Prague. It might not be a tradition, but the time of year is perfect to see the place so strongly associated with the poet and his poem. The area includes the large pond, Lake Mácha, which may actually have been empty during the poet’s lifetime, the Castle Bezděz, which sits on a long extinct volcano, and the Castle Houska, which according to legend stands at hole leading to hell. Caves, dramatic rock formations and swamps can also be found. It is this mix of natural and historical beauty, which lends the region its appeal and which no doubt inspired Mácha. There is even a trail named in his honor which starts in Mělník. This year may be an especially appropriate time to visit as it´s the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Even if literature is not your thing, the area is worth a visit and this time of year is ideal. Numerous hiking trails criss-cross the region. Map 15 by the Czech Hiking Club is the one you’ll need. If you’d rather something else do the walking, it’s possible to go horse-riding in the area as well.

Though it might be still a little chilly this time of year for swimming, there are possibilities for canoeing, boating (regular and pedal) and windsurfing. Given the regions popularity in summer, the water is a lot cleaner earlier in the season. Nor are you bound to what you can do on the ground; it´s also possible to go ballooning nearby.

With so much to do, you might want to consider staying for a couple of days. If so, information about accommodation, all the activities listed above, water quality and tips how to get can be found here.

For those who’d rather stay in Prague, the Botanical Gardens have also organized an event in connection with day. O Lásce šeptal Tichý mech (The Quiet Moss whispered about Love) is a performance of Mácha’s poetry by leading Czech actors. Readings will be in Czech.

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