Blue Monday and Ugly Wednesday: Czech Easter week traditions explained

Every day in the week leading up to Easter, as well as the Monday right after, is steeped in folk culture.

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston Published on 11.04.2022 15:05:00 (updated on 14.04.2022) Reading time: 6 minutes

Holy Week, as the days leading up to Easter are called, was once a busy time in Bohemia and Moravia. People prepared to finish the long season of austerity that began right after Masopust. In the days when agriculture was more vital than industry, it marked a time for the new growing season to get underway.

This year, Easter is April 17, and Holy Week is now upon us. Friday, April 15, and Monday, April 18, are state holidays.

On Blue Monday (Modré pondělí), people weren't supposed to work and school children had the whole week free. Clearly, this is no longer the case and the Blue Monday tradition, which would be a welcome reprieve in today's world, has been all but forgotten.

On this day, spring cleaning should commence and broken household items should be thrown away. Back in the day, walls were whitewashed and green seedlings were placed on tables as a sign of spring. Blue is said to represent purity and can be seen for example in St. Mary’s robes. This day is sometimes alternatively called Yellow Monday (Žluté pondělí).

The cleaning frenzy continues into Gray Tuesday (Šedivé úterý), which is particularly reserved for cleaning out the gray cobwebs that accumulated over the winter. In some places, this is called Yellow Tuesday (Žluté úterý). Yellow is said to be for the rays of sun that can be better seen in a cleaned house.

Cobweb. Photo: iStock, kim willems.
Cobweb. Photo: iStock, kim willems.

The cleaning theme carries over into Ugly Wednesday (Škaredá středa), also called Soot-Sweeping (Sazometná) or Black (Černá) Wednesday as it involved sweeping the chimney after its heavy winter use as well as sweeping the evil spirits from the house. Logically, this should be done before painting the walls white, but there is no accounting for tradition!

According to Christian tradition, Ugly Wednesday is when a frowning Judas betrayed Jesus. Therefore in the Czech tradition, anyone who frowns on Ugly Wednesday will frown every Wednesday for the rest of the year. On this day, it's customary to bake Jidáše, a honey-sweetened pastry coiled like a noose.

The name Green Thursday (Zelený čtvrtek) may actually derive from German traditions with Greindonnerstag (Mourning Thursday) becoming Gründonnerstag (Green Thursday) over time. One folk tradition calls for eating greens like nettles and spinach. Eating raw peas was said to protect against toothache all year. Even today the tradition carries on beer that's colored green by brewing with nettles or added dye.

Illustrative image from iStock, jeka1984.
Green beer. Photo: iStock, jeka1984.

On this day eating Judas (Jidáše) pastries with honey for breakfast ensures a year free from diseases or venomous bites. Farm animals once had honey mixed into their feed for improved health, and dripping some honey into the well and bathing in morning dew were said to have health benefits.

Church bells ring for the last time on Thursday morning, and then they “fly to Rome.” Even today in villages, boys shake wooden rattles to remind people when it's time to go to church. Bells ring out again on Saturday evening.

Jidáše pastries. Photo: Wikimedia commons, Matěj Baťha, CC BY-SA 3.0
Jidáše pastries. Photo: Wikimedia commons, Matěj Baťha, CC BY-SA 3.0

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Chiming bells are connected with rituals as well. Rubbing two coins together as the bell chimes on Thursday morning means you'll retain your wealth all year long. Alternatively, you can shake fruit trees to ensure a bountiful output.

It's important not to borrow anything and avoid quarrels on this day, so you will be stress-free all year. Burning garbage or throwing it over a fence, means mice and insects will leave your buildings.

Great Friday (Velký pátek) by Christian tradition is when Jesus died on the cross. For the devout, it is a day without meat and also one for fasting. A simple meal of cooked grains and cabbage soup was customary on this day.

Washing laundry or plowing fields is considered unlucky on this day. Anyone who has an injury while working in the fields will be cursed with bad luck all year, and their efforts will be fruitless. Similar to Green Thursday, nobody should borrow or lend anything, or take anything out of the house.

Easter eggs for sale at a market in 2019. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)
Easter eggs for sale at a market. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

Healthy rituals for this day include bathing in running water before sunrise at a stream. (doing so not only prevents diseases but, in young women, freckles). Speaking of sunrise, a red sunrise on Good Friday means ill-fortune and war in the coming year. Rain and thunder mean a good harvest.

Traditionally, this is the day that hidden treasures can be found because secret entrances to caves are revealed. The entry can be spotted next to the flowering ferns which are collected in the morning hours and dried and used for medicine all year or blue flames, small blue flowers, or an actual mystical fire. Common wisdom dictated that you don't stay in the cave too long or you could become trapped.

White Saturday (Bílá sobota) likely gets its name from the priests’ white robes. Mass should not be celebrated until evening, and people should continue to fast.

Mazanec. with almonds. Photo: iStock. muuraa.
Mazanec. with almonds. Photo: iStock. muuraa.

During the day, the final preparations for Sunday and Monday get underway. Cakes are baked in the shape of a lamb, using a special mold. People also make “mazanec,” a sweetened bread with raisins and candied fruit. Before baking, a cross is cut on top of the dough and sprinkled with almonds.

Boys and young men weave willow twigs into a “pomlázka,” a symbolic whip that has in recent years become somewhat controversial.

Girls and women decorate eggs in various colors made from natural dyes and etch them in traditional patterns with a pin. The decorated egg is called a “kraslice.”

After the evening mass, that fast is finally broken and smoked meat can be enjoyed. Candles from the mass are lit at home and the flame is used to light a fire in the fireplace. Ashes and crosses from the remnants of wood can later be put in the fields as a blessing.

There are actually only a few superstitions for Easter Sunday (Velikonoce) itself. With lent over, people can finally celebrate with a big meal using what they have prepared the day before. The devout should go to mass, and it's also considered a day for dressing up in your best clothes. After mass, it is time for the Easter feast.

Tradition says that people who eat lamb will find their way. Lamb is a relatively expensive meat, so eating the substitute lamb-shaped cake in most cases has to suffice. People who haven’t finished making their eggs and whips should do so.

Easter whips for sale at a farmers market before the pandemic. (Photo: Raymond Johnston)
Easter whips for sale at a farmers market. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

A relatively new tradition is to shop for new clothes before Easter, and many Czech stores cater to this with pre-Easter sales. The advertising campaigns often play with the imagery of lambs and decorated eggs. By law, stores are closed on Easter Monday but can be open on Good Friday.

Easter Monday (Velikonoční pondělí) is when boys and young men will go from house to house with their “pomlázka” and lightly whip young women on the backside. The tradition, which is much more popular in Moravia than in Bohemia, is meant to ensure fertility and health for women, and perhaps also a good harvest. Young women present the boys with a colored egg or chocolate. In some places, this is a way of avoiding being whipped. Adult men are usually given a shot of slivovice.

A boy also should recite a poem or sing a song, and also use a whip he made himself. The poems vary from region to region. Women can refuse to be whipped if the boy doesn’t make at least a minimum effort, such as not knowing a proper poem, having too shabby a whip, or coming too late in the day.  

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