Why do Czech people burn the witches on April 30th?
Springtime in Prague is beautiful. Plants are just starting to bloom, sidewalk seating spread around town, and the winter coats are shelved for warm weather clothing. But wait! Before we can feel safe knowing the warmth will stay, we need to ensure that the evils of winter are gone.
“How does one do that?” you might ask.
On April 30th, the Czechs celebrate Čarodějnice, or the burning of the winter witches – an interesting tradition that goes back hundreds of years. I must quickly add that this tradition probably had nothing to do with the witchcraft trials and witch burnings of history. There were relatively few here and it would not have been on the minds of most local farmers and villagers.
The first time I have ever encountered this custom, I found myself watching a number of women and little girls dressed as witches and dancing around a bonfire. The ceremonial “witch” to be burned was made of straw and broomsticks. Drums were playing while the ladies danced around the fire as food and beer were being served at various stands in the area. Later in the evening, bands played and more food and beer was consumed.
I was very curious as to where this slightly Halloween-ish tradition had its origins. Why the heck are they burning a witch?
The tradition is not unlike Walpurgis night. Saint Walpurga was an 8th-century abbess who apparently battled pests, rabies, whooping cough… and witchcraft. Such a resume reached the Germans. As her day is May 1st and the witches’ night in the Czech Republic falls on April 30th, the connection seems logical. This holiday also parallels Beltane, a more Irish and Scottish day. It is pretty much the same story with the belief that something evil, magical, and witch-like occurred on that night.
So, according to most of these holidays, two things are happening on April 30th. Winter gives the witches strength and they are vulnerable as spring starts, and most witches tend to have big parties on April 30th that have to be stopped.
One might wonder how one stops a witch party. Apparently, lighting a large bonfire does it. The witches’ aversion to warmth and fire causes them to go away until the next winter.
Here in the Czech Republic, a large bonfire will be built in most villages with many enthusiastic older children helping create the woodpile that would be ignited later that evening. You can also find some of the parks in Prague with a bonfire prepared for nightfall. But the fires are really just the start of this celebration.
In standard Czech logic, if we have a fire we might as well bring a bunch of sausages and other meats to be cooked on the fire. If the Czechs have the food they might get thirsty so plenty of beer will be on hand to wash the food down with. Well, we have food and beer, we need to invite our friends to join us and we will need music. So, though the original thought was for the protection against evil spirits, it has, and probably was in some ways, a celebration of spring and just another reason to have a cookout. Winters were harsh and with the coming of spring, celebrations with your neighbors were pretty common. Imagine being trapped in a hut with your family all winter. You get the point.
In Prague, there is a long tradition of celebrating Čarodějnice in parks, with some live music and an abundance of food and beer. This year it seems like all gatherings like this are canceled, so we will be left to continue this custom within our closest circle of friends and family. Let’s hope in the future things change for the better!