In most Western countries, Easter is traditionally celebrated as a Christian festival of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some attend the Easter Sunday church ceremony, their prayers marking a celebration of the Christian fete. This contextualises the first culture shock I experienced, upon learning that in the United Kingdom, the English celebrate Easter through organised Egg Hunts, family gatherings and culinary feasts. The celebration is in marked contrast to my native experience of Easter in Slovakia.
As a country hosting a Christian majority of inhabitants, Slovakia upholds traditional celebration of Jesus Christ on Easter Day. However, the traditional Slovak conduct has a tendency to shock and trigger disbelief, especially in the eyes of visiting foreigners. I, too, sometimes wonder why a young woman is expected to enthusiastically whoop while detaching herself from a group of young men, who pursue her with the intention to whip her with a braided willow cane and to soak her in cold water on Easter day. Even more baffling is the expectation that she is expected to ‘reward’ her pursuers with either traditionally dyed eggs or with money – a rather modern touch.
If this Easter craze already sounds ridiculous, there is more to follow. The sexist gender roles embedded in tradition confine women to their homes for the weekend, with the attached expectation that they would be cooking the traditional dishes for Easter Monday. The feast is filled with Slovak culinary specialties, such as potato salad and smoked ham, cut into thin slices, and at least three types of pastries. On Monday morning, young men and family friends pay the household a visit, perform the traditional whip (sometimes gently, sometimes not) and soak the women, who must afterwards serve the men alcohol and lay out the Easter table. The peculiar tradition hence sees women getting soaked in water or thrown into the nearest stream if proximity allows, then whipped with a cane, while the men indulge in food and alcoholic beverage or get money, as a reward.
Slovak Easter finds roots in the old Slavic celebrations of the holiday. The ritual of soaking the woman had the purpose of cleansing her of evil spirits, while the whipping ensured that she would be healthy and a good wife to her husband. Freshly dyed eggs were exchanged as a symbol of spring and resurrection, and many still enjoy dying them today, even if they do not abide by the rest of the celebration.
However, the tradition is dying out in urban areas. If some of the ‘šibači’, a term used for young men in Slovakian (roughly translating as ‘whippers’), show up on one’s doorstep, they tend to carry cologne, rather than a bucket of water. Still, the cultural phenomnenon is greatly embraced by men and equally greatly hated by women. In fact, some women choose to spend the Easter holiday away from home, usually in the company of friends who also find it just that little bit exaggerated.