At Masopust, the Czech festival for spring.
In February, I took the night bus to Prague for Masopust, the old spring festival—abandoned under Communism—that has made a steady resurgence in the Czech Republic in recent years. The bus pulled into a neighborhood adjacent to the Vltava, north of Old Town, late on a Thursday evening. According to centuries-old tradition, Czech farmers would have slaughtered pigs earlier in the day to make blood sausages, headcheese, and other treyf dishes for the coming feasts. At the bus station, though, there was only a Burger King, a McDonald’s, and, beyond them, the famous Prague spires. Pill-shaped tramcars rumbled along the quiet streets, their interiors as bright as roadside diners.
Saturday morning, I boarded a local bus bound for Únětice, a village about five miles outside the city. With its muddy streets and modest Brueghelian cottages clustered alongside a wide, frozen lake, Únětice presents a fairy tale, or at least preindustrial, vision of Central Bohemia. It was bright and cold, the streets still empty save a few Lycra-clad joggers puffing out steam—Brueghel’s rotund peasants, slimmed down for the new millennium. Cracked and faded village walls suggested an attentively maintained desuetude, and the local tavern was selling strong black beer brewed locally for the occasion. Inside the tavern, I found the tables full of locals eating little open-faced sandwiches called chlebíčky and waiting for the festival to start.
“American?” A sturdy man appraised me, frowning, while a shot of green spirits quivered between his thumb and forefinger. The locals were more accustomed to Brits and Australians coming from Prague, where ESL instruction is a popular vocation among expats. The arrival of an American was apparently disturbing; we augured a new species of tourist. He was comforted, or pretended to be, when I explained that I lived in Berlin, but we both glanced down at the orange notebook I was holding, as though it contained some prophecy or verdict meant for him.
Like Mardi Gras and Carnival, Masopust is an old pagan holiday transformed by centuries of Christian theology. In addition to its bawdy fertility rituals and attempts to drive out winter with hot blasts of licentiousness, Masopust marks the multiday buildup from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. The name translates literally to “Meat Fast” or “Farewell to Meat,” an etymology it shares with Carnival. (Carne and vale are translations, respectively, of maso and pust.)
In earlier decades, the holiday had been one of the casualties of the country’s rapid modernization and reform under Soviet rule. In the seventies and eighties, after the Prague Spring, party officials pursued a policy of militant atheism alongside the purges and censorship known as “normalization.” Any celebrations that took place were conducted quietly, mostly in small villages in the south, or in Moravia, the country’s eastern region, where the festival is sometimes called Fašank.
In the years since the Velvet Revolution, though, Czechs in Moravia and Bohemia alike have resurrected Masopust, not as a religious ceremony—the Czech Republic remains one of the least religious countries in the world—but as a holiday hearkening back to the jubilant mood of its pre-Christian origins.
I tracked down Vladimír Vytiska, Únětice’s mayor of twenty-three years, who, that morning, was corralling citizens outside the tavern in a sibylline white mask and robe. Here was a stout man more in the Brueghel vein—if Brueghel had been Czech. What did the festival mean to him?
Vytiska didn’t quite know how to answer that, and anyway he was busy. But later he wrote me: “The sense of the festival was always to give hope to people in the middle of the winter, to remove for one day the social differences between people, and to allegorize human deficiency.
“The Communists didn’t like it, of course,” he added.
Lately, foreigners have started to infiltrate Masopust’s orgies of feasting, drinking, and dancing. Nightclubs in Prague’s hipper neighborhoods host masquerade balls that range from the elegant to the debauched, even as the city’s English-language newspaper continues to compare the event to “a cross between Halloween and a cold-weather picnic.” Vytiska was ambivalent about Únětice’s own minor but growing popularity among tourists. “On the one hand, it’s interesting to be famous, and our entrepreneurs have profited from it. But on the other hand, it looks now like some tourist product—and it’s opposed to the original sense of Masopust, as a village festival.”
By noon, a congregation of revelers had amassed outside the tavern, looking very much a village festival. Among them were a cross-dressing bride and a zombie groom, a large bear (the vice mayor in disguise), and a seven-foot-tall skeletal Death, inside of which stood a young man shrouded in white linen. Others came dressed as clowns, demons, long-tongued beasts, and girls with brooms to sweep out all the muck from human life. With the mayor’s blessing, these revelers began to dance their way across the village in the processional that was the weekend’s main event. Periodically, we would stop before a house and a brass band would play traditional waltzes and mazurkas for the families within, who emerged with pastries and liquor to share. At some point, a plastic shot glass was passed my way. The smallest children were often tasked with filling these, and so I bowed to a miniature Snow White who approached with the bottle of Jameson, and she gladly refilled it. I lost count of how many times I exchanged a na zdravi with a neighbor and threw my head back.
Despite Vytiska’s reservations, such intermingling between locals and strangers was part of the design of Masopust’s return. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the new logic of market capitalism threatened the health of many small villages. Those that weren’t self-sufficient sometimes turned to tourism, and a few have successfully marketed their Masopust festivals as regional attractions. As a result, the holiday has come to serve both as a vision of a mythologized European past and as a hopeful celebration of its cosmopolitan future, where the urban and rural—and, increasingly, the foreigner—fruitfully commingle.
Not all the remnants of Europe’s past on display were innocuous, however. An hour into the processional, I made out a jolly man wearing a fake beard, hat, and round-frame glasses that together would not have looked out of place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I asked what his costume was. He looked at me, incredulous: “Why, I’m a Jew!” He held up a change purse guarded by a small, stuffed rodent. “Need any money?”
I later read in a dictionary of Czech culture that, in a traditional Masopust festival, “popular costumes were of bears, Jews, horses, and Turks.”
The sun was perched along the town’s chimney line as we marched the half mile from the village to a large meadow, dotted with sheep dung, where the day’s climax would take place. From the other side of the dusky field, the neighboring village of Roztoky approached, several hundred strong, to the beat of martial drums. The rivalry between the towns has been loudly advertised to all newcomers. Now a stage was formed and the villages’ respective bears performed a competitive ritual dance. The mayors delivered impassioned speeches urging peace between the villages while puppets throttled one another in the background. With a spirit of reconciliation, we linked arms to form a circle of more than a thousand souls and grape-vined about the field until we were dizzy. Death filled my shot glass with something strong. Finally, the traditional “mare”—two celebrants in a horse costume—was sacrificed by faux gunshot, its flanks divvied up.
Then came the Masopust miracle: the halves rejoined, and the mare was alive once again. It led everyone back to Únětice’s local brewery, past a cemetery that Death was committed by tradition to haunt into the night while we danced nearby to folky jazz.
I returned to Prague by the last bus, which was so packed with the drunk and tired I couldn’t raise my arms. The next day was Sunday. A friend invited me to a small Masopust gathering at a watering hole in Žižkov, just beneath the huge equestrian statue of the famous one-eyed Hussite general who, like Alexander the Great, is said to have never lost a battle. The party was a quiet, understated affair in keeping with the drizzly afternoon. There was a brass band and purple goulash that cured my hangover. At the table across from us, a woman fed sips of beer to the large white rat—a pet, we hoped—that was nestled against her neck like a stole.
I sent an e-mail to Vytiska asking him to explain the rivalry I’d witnessed between the towns, a grudge that I imagined dated back many misty centuries. No, he said. They’d decided to start it up in 1999.
Ben Mauk lives in Berlin, where he is currently a Fulbright scholar.