Masopust revelry

March 5, 2010
Masopust parade

Parades and bacchanalian parties wind down.

It’s been weeks since the official beginning of Lent, marked by Ash Wednesday (Feb 17), but Masopust (Mardi Gras) events are only slowly winding down in the Czech Republic. Long-associated with ancient mythological rites of paying homage to fertility gods and driving out the spirit of winter, Masopust is celebrated throughout the world by different names like Mardi Gras (US) or Carnival (Brazil). This year, we’ve witnessed several approaches to merry-making from the carnival party held at my daughter’s preschool, to the community ples (evening ball) and subsequent day-time family party held in my husband’s hometown to a nearby village’s annual allegorical parade topped off with zabíjačka (pig slaughter and roast).

Since the Czech Republic is renowned for its love of merry-making connected to alcohol and feasting, it’s no surprise that the country views the Masopust season (literally meaning “goodbye to meat”) with great potential. Events marking the season continue long after the calendar date has declared an end. After a gloomy winter, Masopust revelry seems to help bridge the gap until the arrival of spring’s longer days and more temperate weather.

Growing up, Mardi Gras was a celebration particularly renowned in the South and seemed to be the dream of most college-age males to visit New Orleans during the season and see. Although the bead-throwing tradition had its original roots in European parade traditions where candies were thrown by the town’s aristocracy to villagers, the US tradition that evolved became legendary of its own accord. I’ve never witnessed any bead throwing at parades in the Czech Republic; however, it’s typical for a large float made from a streamer-festooned wooden cart carrying several townspeople dressed in allegorical costumes (including prominent figures like the mayor) to hand out shots of liquor to adults and candy to children in the crowd.

Despite hearing wild tales of New Orleans Mardi Gras, with bare-breasted, bead-covered young women, I never visited Louisiana in February to experience the bacchanalia first-hand. Although each year my aunt and uncle, who lived in nearby Shreveport, encouraged me to make the trip down for their own local celebrations. For several years, my aunt and uncle helped decorate a neighborhood float, and they hosted an open-house with food and drinks during their neighborhood procession. Although it had confused me at the time to learn that there were a variety of parades held on different days with varying themes and focuses, after witnessing the hodge-podge celebrations that were typical in the Czech Republic, I began to understand that the variation was essential, not accidental. Masopust is the time when anything goes.

When I asked my Czech friends how they celebrated Masopust, most of them cited events for children, such as carnival parties held during school hours or town parades. One of my friends, an elementary teacher mentioned how he dreaded these school events since they invariably became excuses for the kids, particularly the boys, to bring all manners violent toys, including guns, swords and knifes, with them as part of their carnival costumes. Even though the carnival was restricted to the afternoon, he recalled spending most of the day reprimanding kids who’d gotten their costume “accessories” out too soon and were beating each other with them. Still, tradition was tradition, and the idea of limiting the kids’ costumes to something without a potentially dangerous accessory wasn’t a consideration.

At Anna Lee’s preschool this year, the children painted paper masks depicting the faces of animals, such as cats, rabbits, dogs and bears, which they were invited to wear along with a costume of their own choice one Friday morning to school. Thinking that Anna Lee would likely want to be a princess, as most of her classmates would, I encouraged her to pick a dress-up dress from her selection and plan to wear that to school. However, when Radek got wind of my suggestion, he interjected, telling Anna Lee (and me) that Masopust costumes are supposed to be wild and crazy. Anna nodded and disappeared to her room, reappearing a few minutes later wearing a black leotard with leopard-skin skirt, black glittery tights, green butterfly wings, her red cat mask and silver sparkly shoes. She definitely looked the allegorical part of butterfly-kitty cat that she claimed to be.

When I arrived at school the following day to pick her up, Anna was aglow with the joy of receiving candy and winning a prize for being one of the runner-up “queens”. Several of the girls in her class were dressed as princesses, and most of the boys were pirates of one sort or another, but Anna seemed pleased with her costume choice. I was more surprised to learn that the children had chosen their own King and Queen (as well as 1st and 2nd runners up) to lead their parade.

While it seemed a fun idea, when Anna told me that the boys had voted for the girls and the girls had voted for the boys, I had to wonder how they’d done the voting since the children weren’t old enough to write a secret ballot and whether any of the children who hadn’t been picked as one of the “winners” had been disappointed. I felt particularly bad knowing that there were just six girls in Anna’s class, which meant that only three weren’t winners – fewer if someone was absent. None of the other girls seemed distraught, but I wondered how Anna would have behaved if she hadn’t been among the “winners” since she doesn’t even like to lose when playing games for fun at home.

Overall, concern for political correctness and feelings didn’t seem to have a place in Anna’s school that day as far as I could tell. I arrived to find Anna’s teacher wearing a long black wig, jewels and bright make-up. I didn’t think much about her costume until Anna told me that her teacher had dressed up as a cikánka, which Anna told me meant an old woman wearing lots of jewels. Anna had no knowledge of the ethnic implications of the label, which is a colloquial term in Czech for a woman of Roma ethnicity and can be considered disparaging, although Czechs seem to use the label fairly frequently in conversation, if not in official writing. When I asked a few Czechs about the teacher’s costume, they said they knew Czechs of Roma ethnicity who labeled themselves cikánka, although they agreed it was a strange costume choice for the teacher. Having not heard the teacher explain her costume herself, I was reluctant to judge, but the whole experience made me wonder what other traditions or rituals the children were learning to associate with Masopust.

Later in the Masopust season, we attended a family carnival held in a local sokolovna (gym hall), where Anna dressed as a cowgirl and Oliver dressed as a chef. There was live Czech music and performances by several dance groups, as well as party games and prizes for the children, beer for the adults and homemade koláče (traditional pastries with poppy seed, cream cheese and jam filling) for everyone. I spent most of the afternoon sitting at a table along the wall of the large room and watching the parents and children interact. Some of the games required parental participation, including one game where children in teams of 4 wrapped an adult in toilet paper. Other games were purely for kids, with parents cheering encouragement. Radek was the dutiful attentive parent and his participation in the games and dancing helped Anna and Oliver fully enjoy the party.

I couldn’t think of the last time I’d been to such a party in the US. I’m sure they exist especially in Louisiana around Mardi Gras, but most of the parties I remember as a child were birthdays or Halloween where adults stood by the wayside without getting involved. I saw a few adults in costume, and I applauded the Czechs for embracing Masopust traditions as a family affair and carrying the generations-long spirit of revelry into the twenty-first century. Now, with Masopust fading, I’m trying to prepare for the upcoming Czech Easter traditions, another season of revelry, hopefully, minus the whipping this year.

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