Czech traditions, holidays explored at NCSML

By Cindy Hadish

CEDAR RAPIDS – A new exhibition shown exclusively at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library tracks a full year of traditional Czech holidays and customs.

“Celebration! Rituals and Revelry of Life,” explores folk traditions through colorful Czech masks, costumes, religious artifacts and other items directly from the National Museum in Prague.

“Every region is represented,” visiting curator Petra Červinková said, noting that the exhibition was prepared exclusively for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and will not be shown elsewhere. “These 19th Century artifacts don’t like much to travel.”

Ms. Červinková, who manages the ethnographic department at the National Museum, and Monika Tauberová, the National Museum’s textile curator, traveled from Prague to help prepare the exhibition, which opened with a special ribbon-cutting on March 13.

More than 200 items are on display, following a year of both sacred and whimsical holidays and traditions, from Easter customs through the winter celebrations of St. Nicholas Day, Advent and Christmas.

Several kroje, or folk costumes, represent traditional dresses worn for weddings and other events in various regions of the Czech Republic. Colorful hats used during a spring parade in Eastern Bohemia that celebrates fertility and an infant’s beaded baptismal cap also are among the items on display.

“Several years ago, the National Museum offered several exhibitions to prepare for us,” said Stefanie Kohn, curator for the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library. “This one sounded like something our visitors would like, to connect to their Czech heritage and also to learn about other customs.”

Signs help explain the various traditions represented by the artifacts, while photos – of the parades, for example – put the customs in context. Ms. Kohn said the exhibition will remain open through Jan. 11, 2015.

Ms. Červinková said some of the holidays are religious in nature, but are based on Czech customs. For example, Svaty Mikuláš (St. Nicholas) and Anděl a Čert (an angel and the devil) are part of the St. Nicholas Day tradition, represented by figurines in the exhibit.

In the Czech Republic, the three figures walk the streets on Dec. 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. Children who have been good receive candy from the angel, while those who have not been good would receive a sack of coal or supposedly be put in the devil’s sack and taken to hell.

Ms. Červinková said, as in the United States, Christmas has become more commercialized in the Czech Republic, but “it’s not only about gifts.”

“Nowadays, it’s about relationships with the family at that time of year,” she said.

Some traditions are familiar to Americans, such as displaying a nativity set during Advent, while others are less well-known. Rituals that celebrate fertility in agriculture, for example, are represented by masks worn during parades in past eras.

Ms. Červinková said the year’s-worth of traditions is tied to the seasons of agriculture. Even weddings had an agricultural link, with most celebrated in February, when farmers had more free time.

Czechs try to keep some of the traditions alive even today, she said, while others are relegated to the past.

“It’s so important to save these cultural treasures,” Ms. Červinková said.