My family isn’t good at celebrating Easter the way some folks do.
This year, I’m trying to up my game even though my kids are basically grown. However, whatever I plan will doubtfully rank anywhere near the more unusual Easter traditions I’ve known through the years.
My time in Eastern Europe wins that prize, hands-down. Many of their Easter traditions pre-date Christianity and are rather lively.
Some of the details I remembered were so hard to put into place, that I called on Katarina Tomkova, a former Slovak student, to remind me.
During the spring I spent in Stara Lubovna, the Slovak village where Tomkova grew up and now lives, one of my most vivid memories is something her mother did. When it was still cold outside, she planted seeds in water in a small dish. She set the dish in the middle of the table. I ate dinner with the family often that winter and spring. Every day, we would watch the seedlings evolve.
Just in time for Easter week, the seeds grew into a tiny field of grass. Then Mrs. Tomkova carefully placed decorated kraslica (hand-painted eggs) on the soft bed of grass for a holiday centerpiece. It was as beautiful as any I’ve ever seen.
This week, Katarina confirmed details of Šibačka, an ancient tradition that occurs in Slovakia on Easter Monday. Though somewhat modified now, she said the tradition continues. When I was there in 1993, high-school aged boys gathered in small groups to visit girls. As strange as the following may seem, the boys first “spank” the girls with decorated braided whips (prepared days in advance).
Next comes Oblievačka, which Katarina considers to be “the fun part” — boys throw or pour water on girls — almost like a water balloon fight.
Katarina says the tradition has faded and is now practiced mostly in villages where people live in houses and have yards. She said boys refrain from large amounts of water indoors, instead sometimes spraying girls with perfume. She says boys still recite a short poem or simply say "Christos Voskrese,” which means the Christ is risen, three times, sprinkling water or spraying perfume each time.
Then, boys eat and drink special treats prepared by the girl’s family before they move on to the next house. Younger boys get chocolate eggs or money.
“It is considered an honor that the boys pay girls a visit on that day — that is why they receive treats,” Tomkova told me.
In the Czech Republic, the tradition has slight variations. The whip there is called a pomlázka and consists of four to twenty-four willow twigs, with colorful ribbons tied to the ends. Long ago, I was in Prague on Easter and saw boys chasing girls through a train station. Tomkova says those involved now are careful for there to be no semblance of aggression but keep the spirit of play.
One cultural difference: In the Czech Republic, girls pour buckets of water on boys, instead of vice versa. According to a 2019 survey by iRozhlas/Czech Radio, 60% of Czech households follow the tradition on Easter Monday.
Julia Wyrzuc, a Polish-American friend in New Jersey, still practices elements of similar Eastern European traditions. She says on Palm Sunday, she and her family use pussy willows to decorate palms.
“For us, the big thing is pisanki — our carefully decorated Easter eggs. Those always go in our Easter baskets, which we take to church to be blessed the Saturday before Easter Sunday,” Wyrzuc said. “The baskets should include pisanki, ham or another meat, salt, pepper, bread, a piece of babka and an Easter lamb, usually made of sugar.”
After church on Easter, she explained that they bring the basket home and everyone has to eat a piece of food from it, then they wish each other good blessings for the coming year — it's considered bad luck not to eat from the basket. The family then enjoys a cold breakfast with the ham, sausage, roasted meats, pasztet (like paté), eggs, horseradish and bread.
“We also have desserts. The staples for us are Polish cheesecake, makowiec (a poppyseed cake) and babka,” she said.
She explained that poppyseed and babka are also considered good luck. Later, they have zurek, a soup made from sourdough or rye.
“I think the best part is the next day — it’s called Wet Monday (Smigus Dyngus) and you basically just pour water over everyone,” Wurzuc said. “I've gotten woken up with water sprayed all over me. It's usually a contest to see who can get who wet first.
However you choose to celebrate this season of rebirth, I hope you do so in joy, surrounded by people you love.