Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Supernatural Celebration

On the last night of April, Prague got caught up in witch-burning mania.

By Barbora Netolická

Witch-burning night, the greatest of all pagan holidays, came to Prague on April 30, bringing a host of magical creatures out on the streets.

On this night, people who under normal circumstances are quiet Prague citizens lose their conventions with a crazy costume and a couple of beers, and gather for witch-burning celebrations that herald the return of spring.

Witch-burning parade in Malá Strana
“We allow the great witch parade flying over Kampa,” Miroslav Stejskal, a police officer and co-organizer of the Witch Parade and bonfire in Malá Strana, gloriously announced over the lifeless body of a rag-doll witch bound to the bonfire.

Also known as Walpurgis Night or Beltaine, April 30 was in ancient times thought to be the night when witches would fly on their broomsticks to gather for a witches’ conclave. To protect themselves, people would light a fire in front of their homes. Over time, the tradition changed to burning statues of supernatural creatures, like witches, and then using the ashes as protection and the fire as purification. Then young girls used to jump over the fire to gain beauty and a good husband. Interestingly, these traditions have survived into modern times; the main difference now is that they include more beer and security guards.

The crowd watching the
witches dancing around
The most popular witch-burning celebration in Prague is held in Malá Strana, where this year a parade started at 7:30 from Malostranské náměstí, and traveled underneath the Charles Bridge to Kampa Park, where a crowd waited to burn the witch. The parade had a strong ambience created by Medieval-style execution drums following a cage with a “witch” – a middle-aged woman very precisely dressed up, screaming “I am innocent!”

“I call all the witches,” said Stejskal, dressed in an executioner’s robe as the parade arrived at Kampa and the crowd wanted some blood. He announced that the Mayor of Prague 1 was absent for family reasons, so the witch would probably not be granted a pardon, and the burning would take place. However, he called for a vote on the witch’s fate.

“I am asking you, should we grant her a pardon or will she be executed,?” he shouted, pointing at the parade witch, and asking the crowd to raise their hands to vote for a pardon.

High Witch-fashion at Kampa
“My friends, all of you who raised your hands will lose them,” he concluded after enjoying the view of half the crowds’ arms in the air. He then invited everybody to the bonfire, where the execution of a one-meter tall rag-doll witch followed.

“This is the only night of the year that I feel like myself,” said Veronika, a young woman who joined the parade wearing a heavy witch costume. She reported that she was 890 years old.

“Finally, women have their own real holiday,” she added.

However, motivations to come to the witch-burning were diverse. “I hate witches, so I came to see some of them burning,” said Anıl Paçacı, an Erasmus student from Turkey. We can only hope he was joking.

Another Erasmus student from Turkey, Deniz Sun, said she came to see some Czech traditions and find out about the witch-burning, since in her culture there were no witches, and certainly no witch-slaughtering.

“There is a very pleasant ambience here – nice music, people enjoying the performance,” said  Alain Alverado, a ČVUT student from Spain, as he watched witches of all ages dance in a circle around the bonfire. “It is a little like Halloween, but more traditional.”

Hana and Jan from Prague said they come to Kampa every year. Their costumes were magnificent – they were both dressed as pretty ugly witches. “We know the organizers, Sdružení Občanů a Prátel Malé Strany a Hradčan [Association of Citizens and Friends of Malá Strana and Hradčany],” said Hana, 38. “It is a good occasion to meet up with friends and have some unconventional fun.”

“I look forward most to the fire show at the end of the program,” added Jan.

“So where is the big fire?” wondered Lucie, 32, from Prague, as she waited for the bonfire to be lit. She said this was her third year coming to Kampa with friends for witch-burning night. She did not have a costume, but was supplied with a camera and planned on shooting some good pictures of the festivities.

Bonfire in Ladronka
The fire was, indeed, big. But according to Aleš Novotný, a volunteer fireman, no accidents have ever happened in the three years he has participated in the Kampa celebration. He and his fellow firemen stood in a circle around the fire, keeping the crowd from the danger zone. People quietly kept their distance; no one tried the firemen’s patience. Novotný said he only feared the wind fanning the flames.

As it grew dark, the firemen diminished the flames to a reasonable size that would not need such intense supervision. The rag-doll witch was burned, the dance was finished, and now it was time to eat sausages and drink beer while listening to guitar tones coming from a group of young celebrators sitting on the grass and playing.

 Miss Witch 2012 contestants vying for the title
Those who preferred to join a more peaceful witch event, or start sooner, went to Ladronka Park in the afternoon for a program organized by MVP. The annual event focuses mostly on children, but the adults could also get a thrill – for example, gathering around the bonfire, which was lit at 6:30 by the winners of the Miss Witch 2012 contest.

The winner, Witch Leni, 35, said this was her second Miss Witch award.

The Miss Witch finalists leaving the
stage after the competition
“I like this kind of eccentricity,” she said, arranging the bat wings on her dress. “We always go as a family. I also dress up my daughters and they too compete in Miss Witch.” When asked, as Miss Witch, what she wished her land for tonight, she shouted, “I wish everybody a great Beltaine night…and of course, the world peace.”

“It’s a very pleasant place to chill,” said Jelizaveta Lopatina, a high school student of Russian origin, who like many others at Ladronka used the occasion to dress up according to the latest magical fashion.

Ladronka Park on Witch-Burning day
Ondřej, 19, and Jan and David, both 20, came to hear Airfare, the music group that started playing at 8:30. “But we also came to get drunk and check out some girls,” Ondřej admitted. “I think witch-burning night has always been about drinking, so we keep the tradition,” added Jan.

However, the Ladronka event was primarily a family activity. “I was hoping all my witchy girls could stay here at the bonfire tonight,” said Petr, 40, from Beroun, holding his 3 year-old daughter-witch in his arms and waving to his wife. “But now it looks like I will have to go back home after all.”

For more on witch-burning night in the Czech Republic:  

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