All across Prague, bonfires would be lit up, and effigies of dark cloaked women would be set on fire and roasting, the wicked cackling of the winter would be driven away, welcoming in the spring time and warm weather. The evil spirits of winter would be burned and destroyed, the witch’s strength would be ebbed by the coming warm air.
It was Čarodějnice, or Witches’ Day, a Czech holiday celebrated every year on the day before May Day.
Also, I'll put in here quickly that I don't in any way advocate any burning of actual witches.
A Bit of History
Of course, it wasn’t always a day to burn effigies of witches. That innovation is somewhat more recent in regards to May Day celebrations. The transfer from paganism to Christianity doesn’t really follow a clear, sharp line. As people converted to Christianity in the middle ages, they weren’t so willing to part with their traditional ways (we see the same in modern Czech Republic, they’re atheist now but love to celebrate their long held Catholic traditions).
St. Vitus Cathedral at night
Many people were forcibly converted, yes, but a large part simply because it was an easier religion to follow and also that it was often not really that different (take Slavic and Germanic paganism, who already had an all-father, from which all lesser gods and spirits, read angels, were created). It was clear, and there were benefits. Humans wouldn’t be sacrificed, neither livestock, to principalities that only had remote and bizarre characters. Nobility were nothing that special, rather than god-men.
In the Roman lands, the peasantry was the first to convert, and it went bottom up, not top down. The Roman Emperors repeatedly tried to quell the growing faith, but were so unsuccessful that eventually, it was impossible to be a Roman Emperor without being Christian, which also meant sacrificing, or at least changing, the cult of the Emperor.
And why was it popular with the poor? Because Christianity taught that the first were made last and the last would be made first (granted, it's certainly strayed from that since then). It wouldn’t be until much later that the emperors and kings decided to try to wiggle their divine rights into a religion that really didn’t honor the divine rights of kings. So pagans, especially the lower castes, weren’t always reticent to join Christianity.
St. Nicholas Church in Mala Strana
There are stories, of course, of mass forced conversions. Namely Charlemagne’s exploits in Northern Germany, but for the most part, the Christian conversion of Europe was a long, centuries' long process brought by weird, long bearded hippie dudes in brown robes and sandals arguing with Druids and the other established hierarchs (the first Christian king of Bohemia wasn’t until Saint Wenceslas as late as the 10th century). And of course, in non-Latin lands when these hippie monks came in talking crazy stuff that should get you killed, often they were brought to the king and the king sometimes took interest, sometimes burned the guy at a stake or sacrificed him one way or another to Wotan or Chernobog or whoever.
Anyway, enough of that, I’m talking about Witches Day. The traditions were very slow to go. The Catholic Inquisition struggled with figuring out ways that the traditions would be quelled. It didn't work so well, and some schools of thought believed that it would be better to blend the local traditions with Christianity (Jesuits especially took up this strain of thought when they went on a global level, hence the differences between Latin American Catholicism and Roman Catholicism). And so, the winter yule tree became a symbol of Christmas, the Easter bunny a symbol of Easter and the animals that God created, and so forth. The symbols of pagan religions were subverted into symbols of Christianity. And why not? Paganism probably did the same with the animalistic traditions that came before Wotan and Zeus.
On May Day, the old pagans held bonfires and sacrifices, hoping that the evil spirits of winter would be driven away and the warmth of summer would be brought in. People loved the bonfires. So the bonfires were eventually allowed, but the meaning slightly changed (witches instead of evil spirits, the irony here being that it was a tradition of witches to begin with), and the guys over at the Inquisition office had an idea. “Who do we normally burn on bonfires?”
“And who celebrates May Day the most anyway?”
“So why don’t we take May Day and turn it into a day of burning witches?” (of course, human sacrifice is so popular a thing that that also didn't end easily, at some point everyone was burning each other)
“How do we know who’s a witch?”
Basically, the old Monty Python scene:
And later, when they ran out of witches... “We could use an effigy!”
“Ah, what a fine idea!”
And so a new tradition was born, or rather an old tradition transformed into a new one.
The Actual Event
There are a few bonfires held around Prague for Caroldejnice. The most famous one is in Mala Strana at Kampa park, and the more local ones are in Zizkov and the villages around. The more local you get, the more kids and cheesy pop music concerts you get, so we went to the Kampa one, hoping that it would have more of the traditional trappings to show off to the tourists.
Supposedly, there’s a procession that starts from St. Nicholas Church and goes to Kampa Park and they light the fire at 8. We were a bit late, so we went straight to Kampa.
a fireman makes sure it stays under control
We made it for the fire. First we just saw a mass of people, mostly random foreigners, but also a lot of Czech families dressed up as witches and wizards. Then there were the firemen. Firemen everywhere. Fire trucks, fire men standing on fire trucks, and so on.
Then there was a speech in Czech, and finally the drumming started. We fetched a beer in this process, and then sort of watched these dudes with brooms dancing around in a circle, all around the bonfire. I finally caught a glimpse of the bonfire, on which was a burning witch! Not a real witch, mind you, an effigy, but it seemed pretty real. It even looked like it had a skeleton. Weird.
a man with a rat does a dance... as they do
a child looks expectantly for a burning witch
Now I’m not sure what it means that a bunch of people dressed as witches were dancing around a burning witch. Especially after I had read a rant by some English pagans about how it’s bad to burn people and they wouldn’t be burning any witches but celebrating them in England. I wonder if they have a problem with burning Catholics on Guy Fawkes Day…
the fireman wonders why he's there
The bonfire was honestly a bit of a disappointment. Earlier that day, Prague City Hall had met and decided that everything was too dry, hot, and windy, and that they wouldn’t allow bonfires within the city limits. Rather than disallowing the fires altogether, they allowed little small ones that at least got the job of burning the witch done, but areas with bigger witches had their witches remaining unsinged.
Supposedly in the villages it gets crazier, especially where there are rivers separating one village from another. They have a contest about which village can light the bigger fire. But no big fires in Prague tonight, my friends.
We then waddled over to the stage, beers in hand. There were some guys dressed up in medieval costume with medieval instruments, jamming out to some medieval tunes. They didn't seem too disappointed by the lack of fire. They were pretty awesome, I’ll have to grant them. Definitely beat the tiny doll burning in the fire.
the best part of the show, to be honest
For more about Prague, stay tuned for my upcoming book, A Facetious Guide to Prague, soon available on Amazon.com. Sign up on the mailing list to find out when it will be released. Sign up is on the top right of this page.