Witches Night: Crone-burning season comes to the Czech Republic

Czechs, like much of northern Europe, celebrated the end-of-winter festival Thursday night with Halloween dress code and 4th of July fare.

Matthias Bein/DPA/AP
Women dressed up as witches celebrate Walpurgisnacht in Schierke, Germany, on April 30.

This year’s spring equinox has already come and gone in the northern hemisphere. But here in the Czech Republic, May 1 is celebrated as the first day of spring.

And that means it's time to burn some witches. (In effigy, of course.)

In popular Czech culture, spring's arrival is not determined by astronomy or meteorology, but by ancient folklore that turns April 30 into a revelry of faux witch-burning across the country.

I was invited to attend a local celebration with a Czech journalist and his family in the suburbs outside the capital Prague. Run by the local firemen, who are traditionally the nucleus of social events of small towns, the day culminates in the burning of witch effigies at sunset in a bonfire that is intended to burn off the darkness of winter.

It bears obvious resemblance to Halloween. But instead of clusters of young boys and girls in costumes from the movie Frozen, they all don witch hats and brooms as they set off into a near preserve, where they seek out witches hiding among the trees. For their efforts, they are rewarded not with a pillowcase of candy bars, but a sausage that they cook over a fire with their parents.

Witches Night, known as Čarodějnice in Czech, is perhaps better known by its German name, Walpurgisnacht ("Walpurgis Night"). It is celebrated in some form across northern Europe, from Finland, to Estonia, to the Netherlands.

In Germany, the holiday is based on folklore in which witches flew on brooms to the Brocken, the tallest mountain in the country's north, to celebrate spring’s arrival. According to Deutsche Welle, the name derives from English missionary Saint Walpurga, who was canonized on May 1, 870, and has made recurrent appearances in German culture since.

“One of Germany's great poets and thinkers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, named a chapter in his famous opus, 'Faust,' Walpurgisnacht. And the no-less famous German novelist Thomas Mann also dedicated the last chapter of his book 'The Magic Mountain' to Walpurgisnacht,” the newspaper notes. 

Like many of our better-known holidays including Christmas, the Czechs' Witches Night is rooted in pagan tradition to stamp out the forces of winter. Those pagans believed the spirits of winter were at their strongest on April 30. Lighting up a witch effigy apparently warded them off.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Witch effigies stand on top of a Witches Night bonfire in Prague, Czech Republic.

It doesn’t always appear to work. In fact, as the "witches" burned yesterday, most Czech adults lamented that the warmer weather of last week had turned cold and dour, and that spring’s May 1 arrival was set to be a damp, chilly day.

But the weather isn’t the point. It’s the excuse for a neighborhood party. Plus, the chilly air made the campfire particularly appealing this year.

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