As Easter was this past weekend, I managed to recall a very interesting Slovak tradition I learned about from my time in the Czech Republic last year, when I was visiting my old exchange student who lives in Prague. And no, it doesn’t involve chocolate bunnies and finding candy-filled colorful plastic eggs. The tradition is called “mrskacka”, and I have learned that this ritual dated back to pagan times, before widespread Christianity. Basically, what happens every Easter Monday is that men and boys make these sticks called pomlázkas, and then go door to door or about their neighborhood on the lookout for their victims- girls. Once they find the girls, they have to chase them and try to whip them lightly on the butt with their pomlázkas. Sometime they also pour water on the girls. Once they have succeeded in their task, the girls are to tie a ribbon on the stick and give them some sort of reward. For young boys, Easter eggs. For men? Booze. So, as the day goes on, the men are running around getting more and more ribbons and Easter eggs, as well as progressively drunker.
The original purpose of this ritual is symbolic, as whipping with the specific kind of sticks they make is supposed to chase away illness and bring health, which is why the girls reward the men with gifts. However, in modern days, it is pretty much done for fun and festivities, as we celebrate Halloween. Here is a video of the ritual happening in modern times:
What I found weird about this ritual is really just that it is not what I would expect out of a celebration that is inherently lead by reverence and religion. In fact, I find it interesting that it is even associated now with “Easter” considering it is a ritual dating back to pagan times, which has everything to do with fertility as opposed to solemnity and mercy, as we often view Easter. I am not going to say the United States doesn’t also often ignore that element of Easter, in which we dress up as bunnies and look for eggs. In fact, thinking about Easter imagery in the United States, I am now convinced that the majority of our images have much more to do with health and fertility than religious undertone. It could be argued the images of bunnies and baby animals are a vessel for showcasing rebirth and new beginnings, but in most cases I don’t think people are thinking too hard about the nature of the imagery associated with Easter when they are eating their Cadbury eggs and coloring hard-boiled ones.
So in this sense, I do think now, why do we find rituals like this weird? We also have weird rituals in the United States, too. We are just used to them. In October, we dress up and ask strangers for candy. In February, we shower people with romantic gestures that we do with the hopes of being excused from romance the rest of the year, and we even have a day each year where we look to a Groundhog to tell us how much more of a season we will have.
So then, the inherent “weirdness” might not actually come from the association with Easter, but rather the act in itself. We have men and even young boys running around town chasing girls with stick, trying to douse them with water and hit them in the butt. Why? Because they’ll get alcohol out of it. What do the girls get out of it? The honor of being sought out by the man and the expectation of giving them a gift for it. Seems inherently sexist from an outside viewpoint. We have girls being hunted down as targets, and once men conquer these targets by hitting them on a sexualized part of the body and dousing them with water, which could also be considered erotic, they are then rewarded with alcohol. The message here seems a bit like we’re saying men should be rewarded for their promiscuity. But, let us refer to Butler, in “Undiagnosing Gender”.
Although much of this article directly addresses the “transgender” diagnosis, Butler also delves into the idea of gender in itself, and the issues of labeling gender in society. Butler argues that gender should not be something concretely defined, but it is because of social and cultural norms. Butler goes on to argue how sex characteristics are the indicator to society of how a person should be treated and/ or viewed, be it masculine or feminine in terms of what you want to be seen as in society, or in terms of labeling as in how you should act and be treated in society because of our gender norms (Butler 80-86). In terms of this, I think Butler would agree that it may seem inherently a cultural decision to elevate the sexuality of men over women, but that in this sense it is not “weird” inherently, because it is what culture emanates.
Alas, we can say that, yes, this is a cultural event continually preserving sexism in a society and want to say it is weird or inappropriate, but if you see it happen you’ll see the light-hearted, fun atmosphere it has on the culture, much like many of our “silly” or “weird” traditions. Even further, we can say the United States has a lot of things now culturally accepted that were built on sexism from restaurants like Hooters, to the social attitudes towards cheer leading, to the publication of magazines such as Sports Illustrated: Swimsuit Edition. That being said, the culture and the people seem to really embrace this tradition and take it as a day of light-hearted competition. Even if it seems sexist or odd to us from the outside, it is a tradition that raises spirits and embraces past culture and seasonal celebration.