Colorful and somewhat scary costumes, lots of music, dancing and cake. That’s fašank, masopust, končiny or ostatky, the legendary Czech Mardi Gras, the time of strange traditions like burying the contrabass…
What is Fašank and Its History
Fašank is a festivity which takes place just before the 40-day-long Lent period of Easter. You probably know it as Mardi Gras or carnival but this is the Mardi Gras Czech way, so don’t expect any half-naked dancers or Venetian face masks. Instead, enter the world of strange creatures and even stranger customs.
The festival can differ region to region but the idea is always the same – to enjoy the last days of plenty before the long period of Lent. What is now a free choice out of respect for traditions used to be an inseparable part of one’s religious life. Although formerly a pagan festival, fašank announced the upcoming Easter and meant that people had the last chance to rejoice and enjoy the festivities before it was time to slow down.
do kola mě, holka, pusť!
The first fašank celebrations were recorded in the 13th century although folklorists think its origins are even older. Alena Vondrušková sees a link between fašank and the ancient Bacchanalia, celebrations in honor of the Greek god Dionysus.
The Catholic church tried to suppress the celebration full of dancing, singing and eating. The intention to move the celebration to the churches thus making it more quiet and pious was in vain and so, it was at least included into the church calendar and its dates change depending on the dates of Easter.
dlouhá noc bude,
kdo nemá kožucha,
zima mu bude.
The period of the festivities is the time from the Three Kings until the Lent and the last five days full of games and masks are the last days of this period. The most important were the so called Fat Thursday (Tučný čtvrtek), Dancing Sunday (Taneční neděle) and Marquerade Tuesday (Maškarní úterý).
You can read more about the Fat Thursday in Masopust: Fat Thursday and Master Pronobus. The main festivities started on Dancing Sunday. People ate as good a lunch as they could afford and the evening was dedicated to dancing which ended in the morning. Some of these dances were only for some people (married couples, single young people). In the 18th century, Prague elite started organizing the so-called reduty, dances for wealthy people. The timing of these celebrations was convenient for people who worked the land as this was the period with least work. Many families organized weddings on this day, as they had to prepare a lot of good food anyway. Masquerade Tuesday was the peak of the celebrations. Besides the masquerades so popular even today, there were other games and customs depending on the region. One of the least pleasant ones was the “beheading of a rooster” and that is not a figurative name, a real rooster was beheaded. In Koloveč, the miller crew used to put young girls into a specially built mill (babský mlýn) and those girls came out dressed as elderly ladies. In the region of Mladá Boleslav, youngsters organized allegoric weddings. In the region of Chodsko, people went around the village in the so called voračky processions remembering some of the older customs before it was time to plough the field before the upcoming season. One of the Tuesday traditions that survived until today, is the contrabass funeral (see below).
At the present time, as people have less time due to their jobs, the celebrations were compressed into one weekend and the main procession day is usually Saturday.
Ostatkové právo is the right to celebrate Ostatky. This festivity name is used in Haná and just like in the case of Hody, it was a symbolic right given to the young people to rule the village during the festivities. A special committee was elected among the youngsters and this crew had to organize all the aspects of ostatky – decorate the hall, invite the neighbors etc.
A costume parade is probably the most famous part of fašank. If you go to the Czech Republic for this event, you will notice that the colorful costumes often portray animals or professions but in a strange and scary way. There are several traditional characters which you will encounter at every fašank.
Animal costumes are very traditional. There is the mare and the bear on a chain and its master. Brůna would be the north-Bohemian variant of the mare, however, sometimes it resembles a giraffe or a goat. Skakúni are young men in black coats and with red ribbons on their hats. They are usually leading the dances throughout the parade. Podšabláři are men with red wooden sabres dancing traditional sabre dances.
Many parades will also have its devil and men in female folkloric clothes. As we mentioned before, many masks represent animals (horses, cows, birds…) and also professions such as a chimney sweeper or the knacker.
Other traditional costumes include the Jew, the Turk, the old woman with a back basket, hřebenář (hair comb maker), bride, Laufr, executioner, death and uniformed people. Many costumes have a specific behavior, for example, the bear growls and bumps into people, its master pretends to punish it. The bear also takes women for a dance or pushes them in the snow.
And of course, there is Masopust, the mask made from many stripes of colorful fabric.
Food at Fašank
Traditionally, a pig is slaughtered at zabíjačka and pork products are served at fašank. The ovens which have barely cooled down from baking Christmas cookies had a lot of work ahead of them to accommodate everyone’s sweet tooth again, although fried sweets such as koblihy or vdolky are just as popular.
As the masquerade procession accompanied by a brass band goes through the villages, the locals prepare tables with sweets and drinks for everyone who joins in. And so, every now and then the procession stops for a short dance and refreshments.
The Contrabass Funeral
Probably the strangest of all the Czech Mardi Gras traditions comes at the very end and it’s exactly what it sounds like – an actual funeral. The community comes together to bury the contrabass which is treated like a real person. It is placed in a coffin or at least covered with a white sheet. A priest and the altar boys talk about it’s life and it’s sins. These can be the real priest of the village or just people in costumes and the ceremony is a funny one.
Watch this Contrabass Funeral in Strání, Czech Republic:
Where to see Fašank
Same like hody, many Czech villages have their own celebration and even some city quarters organize the festivities. Probably the most famous fašank you can witness is a whole 5-day-festival in Strání – a small village in the ethnographic region of Slovácko (Moravian Slovakia). There you can enjoy not only the traditional parade and feast but also a traditional crafts fair and the performances of many folkloric groups from the region and further.
The National Open Air Museum also organizes these celebrations.
Did you enjoy this post? Go to Celebrations to discover more about different Czech festivities!