Masopust is the Czech word for Carnival and it is no coincidence that Masopust, in the village of Vortová, occurs at the same time as Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday (pancake Tuesday) and the wonderfully opulent Festival of Venice.
It all revolves around Lent.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends approximately six weeks later, before Easter Sunday. It’s the build up to Easter and is observed by many religions including Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Lutharian, Methodist and Roman Catholic. Lent is usually described as lasting for 40 days. It traditionally involved fasting or not eating certain foods but in more modern times has included the giving up of something you simply enjoy, like chocolate or beer.
Masopust or bust
It was perfectly reasonable then for those entering a period where excess was forbidden to have one final fling, one blowout before the fast. This is where the Pre-Lenten festivals come from. Masopust was an official holiday of feasting, during those days people were supposed to eat their fill and parades were a celebration.
The parade starts in the morning and after asking permission from the mayor, begins to wind its way throughout the village, visiting each house in turn. Horses always lead the procession closely followed by the “butchers”, the “Turks”, the “Joker” and his wife. The second half of the parade is made up of the chimney sweeps, the strawmen and the travelling salesmen (described to us as Jews), and the local brass band follows up at the rear.
Each of the characters has his role in the procession and it falls to the Joker and his wife to knock on each door and find out how many songs the homeowners would like performed. The band strikes up and the young Turks do most of the dancing but the other characters join in or fall out as the mood takes them.
Once the song and dance is over, the performers are rewarded with a share of the family feast, including doughnuts, baked specially for the occasion and shots of Slivovitz. (Slivovice in Czech). Slivovitz is a clear liquid made from damson plums and I can vouch for the fact that it has quite a kick to it! By the time the procession has gone all round the village the dancing is also evidence of the fact that it has rather a high alcohol content!
Festival of Fertility
The chimney sweeps (and if they can get their hands on some, the others join in) carry coal mixed with oil and put big stripes of it on everybody’s face for luck. According to old mythology, the strawmen are charged with ensuring fertility for the coming year, and the lady of each house is supposed to take a straw from their costumes to ensure their animals breed well and the crops flourish over the coming year. The fertility also applies to the lady of the house herself, and if the strawman thinks he can get away with it, he might even drag her out for a tumble in the snow.
It appears that the task of ensuring fertility has spread to the entire cast of the procession from the fun and games that were going on. It’s a shame the snow of the preceding weeks had started to recede as they were having to find suitable patches of snow to throw people in.
The parade takes all day and as darkness falls so they wind their way to the village hall for the “slaughter of the mare” Don’t worry, it’s one of the “horses” from the parade. The “mare” and her conqueror face off in the middle of a circle of the rest of the characters from the parade, there is a lot of circling and whip cracking goes on before the “mare” symbolically falls to the floor. Cue more dancing, singing and revelry from all involved.
Guest post by Alison Bailey
I started as a photographer at the tender age of three when my Dad gave me my first camera, a Kodak Brownie. I crawled around ‘taking pictures’ of everything, even though there wasn’t any film, and I’ve been taking pictures ever since.
I’ve worked as a Lab Technician specialising in Pathology to the promised land of Olympus cameras, and even a spell in law enforcement. I’ve returned to my first love now however, focusing on wedding photography. I predominantly use digital today, but the traditionalist in me still loves film, and the skills required to develop it.