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Brace Yourself: The Slovak Big Night Is Coming

Updated: May 9

When my girlfriend hides her shoes, I start feeling a little anxious, and I know that Easter is approaching. Let me explain: Slovaks keep their homes nice and clean, and they have the habit of not walking inside with their shoes on, to keep outside dirt and filth. So when you enter a Slovak home, you take off your shoes and you leave them in the doorway, in a shoe rack or in front of the door. But, in this time of the year, some women don’t leave their shoes in the usual shoe rack. Instead, they hide them somewhere, after giving a stealthy glance at the surroundings. Because if someone is looking for you, and you don’t want to be found, footwear becomes evidence of your presence in the building. You can hide as cleverly as you like, but if your shoes are in plain view, it’s only a matter of time: they will find you.

But why is my girlfriend hiding (with the loving complicity of her babička, her grandma) and why am I describing Easter as a horror movie? Because, if you are not a local, Slovak Easter is more surprising and unsettling than Halloween. They call it Veľká Noc, the Big Night, and it’s a Christian holiday, like in the rest of Europe. They celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and the religious liturgy is more or less the same as in the other countries I visited: same symbols, same dates. But the Slovak traditions in this period, as a legacy of pagan rituals and agricultural folklore (where the wealth of families, and even life and death, were revolving around fecundity of the soil and anthropic fertility), are still unique, and frankly shocking for uninformed foreigners. You’r rather be prepared to what you can see during the Slovak Easter.

The first thing to know, is that gender roles are well defined and asymmetrical, to say the least: boys and girls play very different parts in the Easter traditions. Groups of young men gather, cheerfully looking for women. When they found them, the šibačka (spanking) begins: women are whipped on the legs, back and butt by boys with a

korbáč (a switch made from willow twigs). It’s not intended to cause pain, but it looks painful, I promise. If not for hurting, what’s the purpose? As the story goes, a woman struck by a korbáč will keep her youth. So much so that the Czechs, brothers and neighbors of the Slovaks, call the korbáč “pomlázka”, meaning “rejuvenator”.

But the Easter fun is far from over for the poor girls and women of Slovakia, who have to suffer also the polievačka (watering): young men throw buckets of cold water at them, or, in the villages, they even throw women directly into a river or into a pond. Nowadays, in the cities and in the offices, where this is unfeasible, the bucket is often replaced by a glass of water, or even by a bottle of perfume, used by the men to spray their victims. The watering is supposed to “help” the women to keep their health, beauty and fertility. It is an allegory of irrigation of the land, a good omen for the end of the winter: the bodies of water are not frozen anymore, nature reawakens and women represent the creative force of the forthcoming spring.

When I witnessed this, during my first year in Slovakia, I was shocked. But the last part of the Easter tradition amazed me even more: after the šibačka and the polievačka, the women are supposed to reward the boys with little treats! They give them sweets or coins to thank them for their service. Sometimes they even decorate the korbáč with ribbons, like colorful medals on the twigs. The boys accept the gifts and they move to the next house or to the next girl, singing and reciting a folk poem, which solicits compensation in form of cakes, eggs or money (booze is not mentioned in the folk verses, but it won’t surprise you to know that oftentimes I have seen also alcohol being involved in these transactions).

It’s hard to judge Veľká noc from the outside. Before moving to Slovakia, I didn’t even imagine such practices could exist, be embraced lightheartedly, and survive until today. I find them weird but funny, spectacular to watch and definitely impressive. I often think they are outdated and sexist, and that they should vanish in the tide of history. But then I think again of how many habits from my upbringing and from my country are probably the same, and I just don’t realize it only because I lived my whole life submerged in them, unconsciously absorbing the mentality that forged them. And in the back of my mind there is another thought, wrapped in shame: if the purpose of these crazy Easter traditions is to make Slovak women smarter, stronger and more good-looking… I see evidence suggesting that they might be working, despite everything.

Author: Luca Trifiletti

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