For most Czechs, Easter is largely a secular event. Boys and men whip women and girls with willow pomlázka, receiving painted eggs or shots of alcohol in return. For many among the Czech Republic’s large Ukrainian community, Easter – or Pascha as they know it – is a more solemn occasion.
An important Pascha ceremony is the blessing of baskets, which happens early on the morning of Pascha (Easter Sunday), following the Paschal Vigil which starts at midnight, and attracts large crowds. The celebrations take place a week after Easter of Western Christianity (this year on April 15).
A community event
Bohdan Rajčinec from the Ukrainian Initiative in the Czech Republic explained the importance of the blessing to Ukrainian people in the Czech Republic. “I think that the average Ukrainian family wouldn’t know how imagine this holiday without traditional features. The Ukrainian community in the Czech Republic keeps observing this tradition in this fundamental sense,” he said.
Participation rates remain high. However, many people go home at this time of year to spend the holiday with family. The significance is both a religious one and something seasonal. Bohdan said Pascha was, for Ukrainians, connected “as much with Christian tradition as with the original celebrations of the coming of spring.”
He speaks from personal experience as much as a representative since he takes part in the blessing here. The family lunch afterwards is also important for him. “For me personally, it above all concerns the time, when to drop in on the family circle and peace and quiet and comfortably live,” Rajčinec told Czech Position.
Natalia, the manager of Dnister, a Ukrainian Restaurant in Prague, discussed what the tradition meant specifically for her. She started by explaining the content of the baskets. One of the most important items is the paska, a traditional sweet Easter bread with raisins.
“The bread is decorated as everyone is able. People braid it or put little birds or frosting. Simply how they are able. Each region in Ukraine has its own traditions. I’m from the west and we maintained our traditions even under communism,” she said.
Another item included in the basket, which has a similar name to the bread, is paskha, which is a food made from quark, and can be served cold to spread or baked. Natalia’s recipe is based on the one from her grandmother, who made both sweet and savory varieties.
Other foodstuffs added are sausage and horse-radish. The sausage is important because it is the first meat meal, people who have maintained a fast through lent will have. Butter is another popular item in the basket. Some regions will also have wine. But the most important is the egg. “There must be the eggs,” Natalia insisted.
“As soon as we get home (after the blessing of the baskets) we immediately cut the paska and everyone must immediately try the eggs. The egg is cut into as many pieces as there are people, and then you can have the paska or whatever. But first you must try the egg,” she said.
The whole celebration
The celebrations don't finish on Sunday, though Sunday is the most important day for people in Eastern churches. On Monday after Pascha, known as Bright Monday, young Ukrainians pour water on each other, a tradition which recalls aspects of the Moravian Easter.
Another seasonal parallel with Easter traditions in the Czech Republic is the use of willow branches on the Sunday before Pascha. However, Natalia is at pains to emphasize Ukrainians boys don't hit girls in exchange for eggs. Instead the branch is lightly tapped on a person and a special song is sung. The songs and accompanying dance are known as Hayivky. Most Ukrainians don’t practice the tradition here.
Bohdan agreed and elaborated. “In any case, these celebrations are not seen in the Czech Republic, so for this reason Ukrainian people like to go home to Ukraine.”
The lead up to Pascha is also taken seriously among the Ukrainian community. Natalia thinks that a lot of people fast over Lent, abstaining from meat and eggs with more young people participating in this rite. Her restaurant even prepares a Lenten menu, offering a variety of meat free Ukrainian dishes such as fried mushrooms, potato pancakes and potato salad.
Bohdan qualified this observation somewhat. He suggested total fasting was not so universal. “I think that the majority of Ukrainians fast at least to the extent that they don’t hold celebrations, weddings and entertainment events. A big section of people, however, maintain a fast even without meat and alcohol.”
Two more Ukrainian people offered their opinions on Ukrainian traditions in the Czech Republic. One woman who declined to be named said that for Ukrainians Pascha was an important religious event. “We are Ukrainians and we are believers,” she said quite emphatically.
A second man who identified himself as Boris reflected on the celebrations within the Ukrainian community here. He said that the celebrations were better back home. “It simply doesn't feel the same here,” he said. Despite this opinion, he said he will still participate. He certainly won’t be alone.
— Ryan Scott is a Prague-based freelance journalist