Easter tradition in Slovakia: a twisted celebration of women

Easter is upon us and so Slovakia is preparing itself for a truly wondrous tradition. Where most of the world seems to be painting, hiding and searching eggs, Slovakia celebrates Easter slightly…different. I wrote about it before but I figured this fascinating event demands another treatment.

Easter in Slovakia

So, how does Slovakia celebrate Easter? Of course, Slovaks also paint eggs and some may even hide and search them. However, the more traditionally minded boys among us will pull out their whips, made from branches (a korbáč), and go around the houses to visit girls. Sounds innocent so far, doesn’t it? Well, once they arrive at a girl’s home, the true nature of the Slovak Easter tradition becomes clear. The boy would start singing a song, all the while whipping the girl gently with the whip. Once the song has finished, the boy would sprinkle the girl with water (although the more enthousiastic among them would use a bucket of water, put the girl under the shower or throw her in a stream in the village) and spray her with a bit of perfume, both of which he took with him in a wicker-basket. The girl in turn would then give the boy chocolate and money (and alcohol if he is older). The boy accepts it with a slightly greedy smile and leaves the house, on his way to the next girl. The girl remains behind, wet from water (or dripping, depending on the enthousiasm of the boy) and smelling from perfume.

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT NEMETI/BARCROFT MEDIA, GETTY IMAGES

PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT NEMETI/BARCROFT MEDIA, GETTY IMAGES

Why do Slovaks celebrate Easter like this?

From an outside perspective, the Slovak way of celebrating Easter truly is a weird one. The first time I encountered it in a small, traditional Slovak village, the boys were so enthousiastic that even a bucket or a shower would not do. They had to bring a bloody fire truck. At the same time, most girls are (understandably) less enthousiastic about the whole affair. They don’t get much out of being wet and smelly, while the boys leave a little bit richer than they were before and with a satisfied sweet-tooth.

But that was never the point, was it? The whole tradition is, in a twisted way, actually all about the girls. The whip, traditionally made from young willow branches, symbolizes vitality. Whipping the girl with the korbáč would transfer the vitality of the young branch to the girl. The water with which the girl is sprinkled (or doused) acts as the “water of life”, ensuring fitness, rejuvenation and beauty. The origin of the perfume is not clear but it seems to be a modern touch to the event. The meaning of it is just as unclear but it sounds reasonable to assume we all want our ladies to smell nice. Therefore, the act of whipping, sprinkling/pouring and spraying is in truth an almost magical ritual to secure the vitality, beauty and strength of our women. Now the Easter celebration in Slovakia all of a sudden doesn’t sound so misogynistic anymore, does it?

Unfortunately, regardless of what you might think of the Slovak Easter tradition, the tradition is slowly fading. The whip, water and perfume is gradually giving way to the modern way of celebrating Easter, with painted eggs and bunnies. Although there is nothing wrong with that, especially for small kids, I do believe traditions should never be forgotten. Not now, not ever. If writing about it puts it back into people’s minds, then that’s what I’ll do.