burning witches
Customs & Traditions

Burning of the Witches and 1st of May in Czech Republic

The Burning of the Witches is a pagan festival celebrated on the 30th of April. It is referred to in Czech as Pálení čarodějnic (burning of the witches), Čarodějnice (witches), Filipojakubská noc (night of St. Philip and Jacob). As is obvious, it is connected to the belief in witches although nowadays it’s especially a fun festival for children. Let me tell you a little about this Czech festival and about how people celebrate the 1st of May.

Burning of the Witches

burning witches

The Burning of the Witches is often compared to the Walpurgis Night celebrated in Scandinavia or the Celtic festival Beltain. This festival has pagan origins and was almost extinct in the mid 19th century as the authorities tried to ban it as a superstitious practice. The second moment of danger for this festival was the Second World War when outside fires were prohibited and the communist regime wasn’t very fond of the pagan tradition either. There were efforts to rename it to Peace Fires.

So what is the Burning of the Witches, you ask? Originally, young people used to light bonfires on hills at dawn on April 30 and they danced around them sometimes until the dusk. It was believed that the night before May 1st was magical and the power of the witches was stronger. The witches were doing especial harm on this night and the bonfires with fake witches were supposed to be a “scarecrow”. On the day of April 30 the young people walked around the village collecting wood. 9 kinds of wood were needed and one of them had to be juniper wood. The fire was lit by the man who got married most recently.

Nowadays, it’s not just youngsters, the tradition has become also a family event, often times the towns organize a bonfire for everyone. In some places it’s just the fire, in other there’s also a witch at the stake. Some people like to make brooms from twigs and branches, light them on fire and throw them in the air just like was the custom many many years ago. Many people organize this event in their garden, for family and neighbors.

Traditionally the night before May 1st is also the night to lift up májka, one of the symbols of hody.

1st of May

According to tradition, the women should get kissed under a blooming cherry to “not dry out” the next year. And you will, in fact, see a lot of couples kissing under the cherry trees in Czech Republic on May 1st.

During the communist regime there was a nation-wide event called Spartakiáda – people gathered on stadiums and in other public areas and performed rehearsed physical exercises. The participation on this event was mandatory and not participating had sometimes serious repercutions.

This day is believed the day of love and every Czech highschool graduate knows the beginning of K. H. Mácha’s poem Máj:

Byl pozdní večer – první máj –
Večerní máj – byl lásky čas.
Hrdliččin zval ku lásce hlas,
Kde borový zaváněl háj.

In English:

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay.

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