The Czech Witch-Burning Festival of April 30th and Why You Want To Take Part
Springtime in Prague is beautiful. Plants are just starting to bloom, sidewalk seating spread around town, and, even though it may not look that way this year yet, 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. Contrary to what you may think, it has nothing to do with any witch trials – those were a relatively rare affair in Bohemia and Moravia, only about 200 people were burned as witches here in the 17th century. On the other hand, it doesn’t go back to the old Slavic customs either. The custom probably came over the border from Germany at some point in late Middle Ages, where they celebrate Walpurgis Night on the same day and in a very similar fashion – yet another proof of Europe’s cultures being so intermingled that you hardly know where one ends and another begins.
Growing up in the Czech Republic, this custom was mostly a fun opportunity to spend a spring evening by the fire, roasting sausages and singing songs and staying up late (that was and still is an important part of it because no matter what day April 30th falls on, the day after is a bank holiday so sleeping in is encouraged!), not to mention the optional dressing up as a witch, dancing by the fire and creating a witch effigy to burn (mostly out of sticks, straw and old clothes).
As an adult, it finally ocurred to me to take up some interest as to where this custom came from. Why the heck are we so gleefully burning a witch?
Let’s look at the aforementioned Walpurgis Night. Saint Walpurga was an 8th-century abbess who apparently battled pests, rabies, whooping cough… and witchcraft. Such a resume impressed the Germans who began praying to her as a mediator when doing battle with evil spirits was necessary. 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 Gaelic spring festival known, among other things, for walking cattle between lucky bonfires to ward off evil spirits.
So, according to most of these holidays, two things are happening on April 30th. Winter gives the witches (and other evil spirits) strength and they become 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. Where there are Czechs and food beer needs to be on hand to wash the food down with. Now we have food and beer, we should also invite some company and we’ll need music. Anyway, this is how a ritual to ward off evil spirits evolved into the modern social occasion with witch dress-up, fire-cooked meats (and vegetarian alternatives!), beer, music (could just be guitars around the fire, could be regular open-air concerts), dance and just general fun. Apparently, the fire-fun is such that the NASA satellite images capture the heat from the fires on their pics as dark purple dots, as this article from 2018 proudly informs us (but you can just look at the first picture).
In Prague, there is a long tradition of celebrating Čarodějnice in parks, with some live music and an abundance of food and beer. For two years, all such gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic, but it looks like we’re returning to normal. If you are in Prague this April 30th, you might want to check out any of the celebrations mentioned in this handy list – they all offer mostly the same experience – bonfire, music, beer, food, sometimes a fancy-dress procession. Or, if you are not into big crowds, you can just call some friends over and set up your own bonfire somewhere – unlike some previous years, we are not currently in middle of a draught and fires in the city are not banned (of course, when done safely and on spots designated for fire). Whatever you choose, be sure you get those evil spirits as far away from you as possible!