Every 30th of April I come from work around 22:30 to find my whole neighborhood in smoke. Why? It was a celebration of Čarodějnice (Witches Night), a pagan holiday popular in the Czech Republic. Its celebration consists of burning a hay puppet of a witch on a bonfire. The holiday is celebrated in the large park not far from my home, Ladronka, so the smoke can still be felt in the air.
The history of Čarodějnice
But what's the origin of that holiday, unfamiliar in my home country, Croatia? The burning of witches has a long tradition from the pre-Christianity era. The 1st of May was considered as a transition date between the cold and dark winter to the warmer spring and summer.
According to old pagan beliefs, on the night before the 1st of May, the dark forces and witch powers were stronger than during the rest of the year. To fight them and ward off, the people started to build big bonfires on top of the hills. They also throw brooms in the air to weaken the witches gathered in the air.
During centuries, people, especially in villages, respected many traditions and superstitions and protected themselves and their crops in different ways. They spread the holy water around their houses, put tree trunks or thorns and spiky sticks in front of their door so that the witches cannot enter.
Today, the only part of the tradition that is preserved is bonfires, which are built everywhere, not only on the hills. In the Czech Republic, people make a witch puppet from hay and old clothes, which they eventually burn on a bonfire.
Nowadays, Čarodějnice is turned into a festival with the only purpose to have fun. It is celebrated all over the Czech Republic. In Prague, every neighborhood has its own celebration, usually in a park, that ends with a bonfire. The program also includes many activities for children during the afternoon of 30th of April (workshops connected with witches, a performance of a magician, etc.) and for grown-ups during the evening (roasting sausages over campfire, concerts and music program, drinks). In some neighborhoods, it's celebrated with fireworks, as well. So, if you're in Prague during Čarodějnice, check out the program in different neighborhoods (for example, here) and have some fun.
Čarodějnice is also celebrated in some Northern European countries and Germany, under the name of Walpurgisnacht (Walpurgis Night). St. Walpurga was an abbess who brought Christianity to German countries in the 8th century and it's believed that the saint will protect the people from evil spirits connected with paganism. Some of the religious folk still go to the pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Walpurga in Eichstätt, others celebrate it in a traditional way with bonfires.