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Letnice, Pentecost and Czech Folkloric Traditions

Pentecost isn’t exclusively Czech but there are some interesting folkloric traditions connected with the festival called Letnice in Czech.

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What is Pentecost and Letnice

Pentecost is a period at the beginning of summer when the church celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit which is considered the beginning of the Christian church. Just like Easter, this period doesn’t have fixed dates. Pentecost is observed fifty days after Easter. It’s called Svatodušní svátky in Czech.

Letnice (the Czech name comes from the word léto = summer) is a more folkloric name of the celebrations. Many Czech holidays have preserved their folkloric elements despite the church’s effort to erase them and replace them with Christian celebrations. And Letnice is no different.

Therefore, Pentecost is a purely church name of the celebrations commemorating the beginning of the Christian church, Letnice refers also to the folkloric celebrations.

Folkloric Celebrations during Letnice

Folkloric Letnice, which were celebrations of the upcoming summer, continued the traditions observed on Summer Solstice. The celebrations were usually full of dancing and loud singing, feasting and also animal sacrifice which was a thorn in the church’s side and led Christian rulers to prosecute and punish people who were believed to practice magic rituals.

Cleaning of Wells (Čištění studánek)

One of the traditions well-known until the present is the so called Cleaning of Wells which had origins in worshipping of the fairies who could control the weather and, in extension, the crops. Young virgins performed a ritual during which they took off their clothes (at that time it didn’t always mean being completely naked but rather wearing just your undergarments), cleaned the wells and adorned them with crowns made from freshly cut grass and other plants. One of the girls was elected their queen and the group went then house to house collecting money for the work they did.

Nowadays, this traditions is observed under the name Opening of Wells (Otevírání studánek) which is usually celebrated with singing.

Ride of the Kings (Jízda králů)

The Ride of the Kings is a very popular festival with a tradition of several centuries. The center of it is a young boy (10 – 12 years) selected to be the king. He is dressed in girls’ kroj (folkloric costume) and rides around the village or town horseback with a rose in his mouth and accompanied by his court. Although the Ride of the Kings used to be celebrated across what is now the Czech Republic, it was heavily persecuted and prohibited by both the church and the state officials that nowadays it’s almost purely a tradition of Moravian Slovakia (Slovácko) and South Moravia. In 2011, it was added to the UNESCO Representative List of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

letnice jízda králů
JialiangGao www.peace-on-earth.org, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Without any doubt, the most famous Jízda králů takes place every year in Vlčnov that has taken place since 1909 without interruption. The young boy to be the king is often “kidnapped” from school by older boys in his court and besides the famous ride, he attends several other events related to the festival such as the meeting and mass at the pilgrimage point U svatého Antonínka. Every 12 years is a very special year when kings from 4 most important villages meat at the pilgrimage point. It is due to the fact that while Vlčnov celebrates the festival annually, the other villages – Kunovice, Hluk and Skoronice – once in two years, once in three years and ocassionaly. Kyjov also celebrates the festival as a part of a folkloric festival that takes place every four years:

Little Queens (Královničky)

Girls also used to have their queen with court although their celebrations weren’t as opulent. Usually, they would walk around the village collecting food for their queen and later, they would have a feast. In some places, the queen, in Czech královna would be called králka and it would be the smallest one of the group. The court would walk house to house hiding the queen in their midst and only show her to those who asked.

Královničky would also dance, sing and attend mass. This tradition is still held in several Moravian towns. Here you can see one such performance as a part of the Slovácký rok folkloric festival:

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Featured picture: archive of Muzeum lidových staveb Kouřim (Museum of Folk Buildings of Kouřim)

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