Witches and Kings

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April 30th in the Czech calendar is a special day. It is Pálení carodejnic. The burning of the witches. This pagan Slavic festival, recently revived, is the final banishing of winter and a celebration of the spring and the coming summer. And there’s big bonfires and drinking into the bargain. A festival of fertility, it’s like Halloween, but in April. It has been an unseasonably cold final week of to the month. The purging of the winter with the burning of the witches seemed especially necessary last Saturday night.

April 30th bleeds into the 1st of May, another day with an important place in the history of what we are now supposed to call Czechia. It is of course the international holiday of the left. May Day in Prague, and throughout the Czech Republic has a long history. Its associations with the left are, unsurprisingly tainted by the forced cheer and joviality of May Day under the communist regimes that ruled here from 1948 to 1989. But it’s still a public holiday, even if it’s on a Sunday. Among the curious traditions in the Czech Republic, the decision to insist that a public holiday is held on the date it falls, and not the next nearest weekday means that some years there are more, and some years less, bank holidays.

May Day is not just a day of international workers. Here it is also bound with the burning of the witches, and traditional celebration of spring including the erecting of maypoles. It is the day of love. A 19th century Romantic poet, Karel Hynek Macha, wrote a four-canto narrative poem called Máj which begins:

Late evening, on the first of May—
The twilit May—the time of love.
Meltingly called the turtle-dove,
Where rich and sweet pinewoods lay (trans. Edith Pargeter)

It is also bound up with the Král Majáles, a tradition which reaches back into the nineteenth century. This student tradition, where they elect a king for the day, and celebrate student life, was made famous in the middle of the 1960s when Czechoslovak students elected American beat poet Allen Ginsberg their King. Ginsberg wrote a poem called Král Majáles. Part of Ginsberg’s poem runs:

“And I am the King of May, which is the power of sexual youth,
and I am the King of May, which is long hair of Adam and Beard of my own body
and I am the King of May, which is Kral Majales in the Czechoslovakian tongue,
and I am the King of May, which is old Human poesy, and 100,000 people chose my name”

I don’t know if students still elect a king on this day, or if the tradition has died out, but down in Vršovice as the twilit May approached, there was an attempt to crown a definitive King of Vršovice. After the game at Eden in the first half of the season which finished in a draw, this clash with Slavia at Ďolíček was the last chance this season for the Král Vršovic to be crowned.

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Like the derby a fortnight ago with Sparta, this game was held on Sunday night at 7pm. I had family visiting for the weekend, but unfortunately, they went back early on Sunday, so missed out on this superb occasion. The game itself was a 0-0 draw, which was disappointing, especially since the first half was very much focused around a strong Bohemians attack. Had we scored in that first half, it’s hard not to feel it would have opened up the game and made it a less cagey affair. As we approach the end of the league season, there was little at stake for both clubs beyond pride in this game.

There were extraordinary displays from both sets of fans, making it a carnival atmosphere during what was a frustrating game for the most part. In the first half, it seemed like things might have turned nasty after an early penalty claim was ignored by the referee and the Slavia fans later in the half threw their near-extinguished flares onto the pitch. Largely, though, the atmosphere was good natured in the boiler, and the occasional anti-semitism that can rear its head when playing Slavia was absent from the Bohemians chanting.

KralVrsovic_Maj_1 (1)There was oddly a sense of this as a family occasion – this time, as well as the usual leader(s) of the fans in the boiler, they were joined by some young boys, one of whom helped direct the chanting for much of second half. As well as the usual mascot dressed as a kangaroo, there was a kid kangaroo in tow also helping to gee up the supporters. The sense of fun was palpable.

While neither side will have been particularly happy with a draw, as twilight descended on the first of May, the Bohemians players came to applaud the fans at this, the second last home game of the season, one of them dressed as a king in robe and crown. Other clubs might get the glory, but Bohemians have something greater.

Main pic: Tribuna Sever Other pics:Sektor1905

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