Witches and roses may seem to be two completely opposite things to most Americans, but here in the Czech Republic, they mark two of this country’s beloved holidays— Čarodějnice/Pálení Čarodějnic (The Witches or the Burning of the Witches, respectively) and První maj (May Day), which are celebrated with bonfires, heavy drinking, and lovers kissing. Although these holidays may seem completely unrelated to us, in the Czech Lands, they are both connected.
Čarodějnice is the first of the two. During the night of April 30th, Czechs light bonfires and burn paper effigies of witches to mark the transition from winter to spring. The ceremonial burning of the paper witches is believed to ward off bad luck (and in more pagan times, actual witchcraft), since traditionally, witches were said to gather every year on this date. The fires are symbolic threats to keep the witches away, but in our modern times, they serve more as an excuse for general mischief and drinking with friends.
Čarodějnice is not just a Czech holiday, however. The night is celebrated throughout Central Europe under a variety of names. In Germany and Austria, it is commonly known as Walpurgisnacht (after the ancient German Saint Walpurga) or Hexennacht (Witch’s Night). Today, most Czechs celebrate the holiday as an excuse to meet up with friends and drink, and bonfires and revelers can be found even in major cities like Prague— though many Czechs claim the best Čarodějnice revelries happen in the villages (for obvious reasons).
The next day, May Day, (or První maj/The 1st of May), is known throughout the Czech lands as the Czech Valentine’s Day, though, like Čarodějnice, it has a complex history. May Day, like in England and Colonial America, was often a time of springtime celebrations in villages based on the Maypole, a tall sapling which men from the village cut down in the night during Čarodějnice celebrations. On May 1st, the Maypole is decorated and erected somewhere prominently in the village, and the men from the village guard it throughout the week against raids from other villages, who seek to steal as many Maypoles as they can. Traditionally, at the end of the week, the men who defended the Maypole against outsiders are allowed to go around the village to receive small gifts and kisses from unmarried women. Then, in the evening, the villagers gather for a ball and celebration to welcome the coming of spring (and give the young men time to court the young ladies of their fancy.)
The 1st of May has other romantic traditions— kissing one’s love under a blooming cherry or birch tree is a custom that goes back centuries to pagan Slavs who held these trees sacred. Legends also stated that a girl who does not receive a kiss from her true love on the first of May was destined to wither away within the year. So, be sure to kiss your love!
První máj is also known as a time of love, not just because it is a time to court unmarried women and defend your village’s phallic symbol, but also because the Czech language’s most beloved Romantic poet, Karel Hynek Mácha wrote one of his most important works Máj May as a memorial to this time of year. Mácha, unfortunately, died shortly before his own wedding, adding to his romantic legend and making him a beloved figure here. Even to this day, Czechs in Prague makes a pilgrimage to the poet’s memorial on top of Petřín hill.
Finally, the 1st of May is also time for the Majáles— where students celebrate the coming of spring with parades, drinking, costumes, and music festivals. Students also hold elections for the King of the Majáles.
So, go burn some witches and kiss your true love!