“Masopust”, the time of carnivals which historically ended on Ash Wednesday, is the oldest continuous holiday feast in the Czech lands. In terms of cultural memory, it is also the longest still transmitted – its significance and meaning passed down from generation to generation.
While Masopust has been marked for centuries, especially in rural villages, since the collapse of communism there has been a mushrooming of celebrations especially in urban and suburban areas, with the carnivalesque – rather than religious – aspect firmly front and centre.
Historically, Masopust lasted from the last night of the Twelve Days of Christmas, marking the coming of the Epiphany – until Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, a time for self-denial, doing penance, repenting sins, and almsgiving in preparation for Easter.
In olden times, especially the last few days of the Masopust period (also known as “fašank”) were an official holiday for feasting and general excess ahead of forty long days of Lent. While that’s no longer the case, the celebrations just ahead of Ash Wednesday – which this year falls on the 6th of March – are among the most wild. And definitely meaty.
Alice Glaserová, an ethnographer from the Regional Museum in Český Krumlov, south Bohemia, explains.
“Ash Wednesday traditionally begins 40 days of basically giving things up in preparation for Easter. And during that period, most people would forgo meat. But public entertainments were also basically forbidden. For example, there would be no dances.”
“So, the whole Masopust period, on the contrary, is all about having a good time, singing, dancing, and eating. Meat from suckling pigs and other delicacies were served. It was a time rich in meat but also in snacks deep-friend in pork fats, such as řízky (pork cutlets) and koblihy and šišky (sugar-dusted doughy treats).”
“People also often indulged in alcohol – in regions of Bohemia, this generally means beer, and of course in Moravia, it was wine.”
In the Czech lands, the day before Ash Wednesday (known as Shrove Tuesday or “Fat Tuesday” in English), often culminates in a pig-slaughter feast called a “zabijačka” – and dishes of blood sausages, black pudding, or head cheese. To wash it down, local breweries often offer a special extra potent Masopust brew. Later, in villages and small towns, often a dance is held in the evening, for example at the town hall, or on the main square.
“We celebrate it on just one day, with a Sunday parade. But other regions in the Czech Republic hold celebrations over more days, over the weekend, even all the way through to Fat Tuesday. The processions make the rounds in different villages. Often they are dressed as animals – wearing bear, goat, horse, bull masks. But they also dress as specific people or types of people.”
“There are many, many disguises. Some masks are mythical, you could say. But the parades are always joyful. People in masks try to draw in those who are just watching, get them to dance along with them.”
“They take different forms in different regions. Some are more orchestrated where each participant plays a role, plays a part in an overall theme. Often there is a kind of lead narrator who reads a poem or his own verse, stopping before each house and then continuing.”
Masopust literally means “giving up meat”. So it was the meat fest before the fast. Whereas in the old days, celebrations tended to last several days and peak on Fat Tuesday, nowadays they tend to be held on a single weekend day, and neighbouring villages and regions try to space them out so as not to compete with each other.
Just as much of the religious significance has been lost, so too have the political origins of the pre-Lent carnival processions.
In medieval Europe, in part this profane entertainment arose from the amusement of otherwise pious clerics and the imaginations of theatrical troupes, sanctioned by the powers that be. It was a time for the reversal of roles, where jesters behave as kings and men as women, and for ritualised social protest ahead of a literal and figurative return to sobriety.
Ethnologist Aleš Votruba of the Regional Museum in Kolín explains the delicate balance.
“Masopust has a special position throughout the Middle Ages, as the Church had an ambivalent view towards it. From the Renaissance on, the pre-Christian roots were too obvious. People already knew that in medieval Rome, the carnival was celebrating the god Saturn. And they were strikingly similar to our Masopust, as it was celebrated in the 16th century in Europe.
“So, the Church looked at it with distrust, but at the same time it recognised that the carnival was a kind of safety valve allowed people to blow off steam and then go back to observing and following the Christian commandments.”
Somewhat counterintuitively, expressions of protest against the social order can be viewed as activities that in fact serve to maintain this order. In other words, breaking common taboos and restrictions markedly serve to strengthen them.
Nonetheless, as Aleš Votruba notes, the communists were not too keen on freewhellling celebrations like Masopust. As in so many other areas, they tried to supplant or reinterpret the tradition to glorify the building of socialism. And so the tradition disappeared from some areas but didn’t die. Though it was both reborn and reinvented after 1989, to varying degrees.
Among the biggest Masopust processions today is in a town north of Prague called Roztoky, which is led by an annually changing Queen of Masopust (a local rarity). Acting as the vanguard in the procession are so-called ometačky (sweepers), traditionally older women who, in a dancing motion, clear the path of spectators – who, if without costumes, may wind up wearing lipstick or face paint, willingly or otherwise.
In Prague’s Letna district, meanwhile, which has only had a Masopust procession for a few years, the local mayor has dressed like Bacchus and given a humorous speech to pass his rights into the hands of the masopust actors. All in good fun, and in the name of the social order.