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Effigies of witches are burned on Witches Night.       Source: diter / Adobe Stock

Witches Night Celebrations Curbed For Czechs

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A traditional night of celebrations known as Čarodějnice, which translates to ‘Witches Night’ in English has been severely curtailed this year in the Czech Republic. The Czech government has forbidden large scale gatherings and bonfires. This is because of the current coronavirus pandemic and also the unprecedented drought in Central Europe, which means that fires and large gatherings are regarded as a public danger.

Witches Night is a traditional and very popular celebration, that is held every April 30 and has similarities with Walpurgis Night in Scandinavian and northern European countries. The occasion is typically marked by bonfires around the country. On this night according to Atlas Obscura ‘people all over Czechia gather to play games, drink beer, roast burty sausages, and burn witch effigies at the stake’. Children often dress up as witches and some of the most popular celebrations are held in Ladronka Park, Prague.

Pagan Festival

Čarodějnice originates in ancient times as it was believed that on April 30, covens of witches met on mountain tops. Bonfires were lit to ward off the witches’ spells and the smoke was thought to keep the witches away from communities.  At large gatherings ‘an effigy such as a broom in old clothes or large rag doll is placed in the center of a stack of logs, and people gather around to watch it burn’ according to Expat. cz . This was believed to protect people from evil spirits for the following year. When an effigy goes up in a burst of flame and soot, people cheer as it signals that a witch has ‘just gone up in smoke’ stated Atlas Obscura .

Burning effigies of witches on Witches Night in the Czech Republic. (Public Domain)

Burning effigies of witches on Witches Night in the Czech Republic. ( Public Domain )

Witches Night is now more about having fun, drinking beer and eating great food, than any fear of evil spirits and black magic . A common misconception about the celebrations is that they are re-enactments of witch trials, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people in Early Modern Europe. According to Atlas Obscura , ‘Čarodějnice is Czechia’s version of Walpurgis Night celebrated across Northern and Central Europe’. This is a festival that is a mixture of pagan and Christian practices, which sought to keep people safe from witches’ spells.

No burning witch effigies

The coronavirus pandemic has led to restrictions being imposed on people in Czech Republic, as is the case elsewhere around the globe. These restrictions have been eased as infections have fallen but people must still wear face masks in public and not assemble in large crowds. This means that the traditional large-scale bonfires with effigies of witches are simply not going to happen.

Gatherings for bonfires are prohibited. (Public Domain)

Gatherings for bonfires are prohibited. ( Public Domain )

They have been banned under public health measures. Expats.cz quotes the Czech Interior Minister as saying that ‘Czechs should not forget that it is allowed to associate in groups of a maximum of ten people, two-meter safety distances apply and face coverings are mandatory in public’. Any large assembly of people could be broken up by the police.

The organizers of one of the largest Witches Night events in Ladronka Park, Prague issued a statement ‘Due to the development of events in recent days… we must cancel this year’s Čarodějnice at Ladronka’ according to Expat.cz. They apologized to those who had planned on attending. The organizers also promised a bigger and better celebration in 2021.

Drought and wildfires

The fear of the spread of coronavirus was not the only factor in the cancellation of the big events. There is a very severe drought in Central Europe, which is the worst to hit the region in 500 years. There have been six times the average numbers of fires in woodland and nature reserves this year.

It is feared that any spark from a bonfire could lead to more conflagrations. Expat.cz quotes a statement from a Prague Fire Department spokesperson ‘Let’s not burn the witch this year, please. … The fire department will thank you’. Public companies and organizations who plan a large bonfire must first notify the local Fire Department and meet certain conditions. This has persuaded many organizers to skip staging the traditional celebration for this year.

Small-scale fires are not banned outright, but those organizing them have to comply with strict Hapsburg era regulations including not starting a blaze in tall grass or near a forest. It appears that some private individuals will celebrate Witches Night and based on supermarket sales they are going to have barbecues and drink plenty of beer. This means that while most large-scale celebrations will not take place, it is likely that smaller events will occur, although private individuals mostly forego burning the effigy of the witch. In this way, the centuries-old tradition will be maintained despite the current pandemic and disastrous drought.

Top image: Effigies of witches are burned on Witches Night.       Source: diter / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan

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