Art & Culture
The Meaning Behind Masopust
By Sarah Jackson
Prague’s yearly Masopust celebration is always a sight to behold. But do you know the meaning behind the colorful costumes and quirky rituals? Here are some of the traditions and beliefs hiding behind the masks of Masopust.
Saying goodbye to … meat?
Masopust literally translates to “meat fast.” The days-long festival celebration is similar in function to Mardi Gras and is believed to date back to the 13th century, when revelers would worship Bacchus, the god of wine and fertility. In those times, Masopust served to clear away the dreariness of winter and usher in a good harvest and fertility for women in spring. Today, the celebration is all about indulging in fun and good food before the fasting of Lent begins (although Czechs aren’t all that religious, they’re certainly into a good party!).
Time to Pig Out
With that in mind, get ready to taste pork like you’ve never had it before. One special delicacy for the occasion is head cheese, a misnomer because it it’s actually a cold cut from the pig’s head, not a dairy cheese. Another common food during Masopust is black pudding, also deceivingly named because it is a sausage usually made from pork blood and oats. Meat aside, another popular food during Masopust is kobliha, which is basically a jelly donut. As far as drinks go, there is plenty of slivovice, a brandy made from plums, to go around.
Not Your Average Thursday
When do revelers eat all this food, you ask? On none other than Fat Thursday. The last Thursday before Lent, this day of feasting is as indulgent as it sounds. It often includes “zabíjačka,” a pig slaughter and roast, and just general gluttony. (It was said that people would have strength for the whole year if they ate a lot of food on that day.)
Masopust also features dances and balls. On the last Monday before Lent there are even some dances for married people only. The following day is called Fat Tuesday since, as the day before Lent, it’s the last chance for people to feast on some foods before they give them up for the next 40 days. As Fat Tuesday draws to a close, revelers prepare to bury a bass fiddle, marking the end of music and the other festivities of Masopust as Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
A Celebration of Many Faces
And now onto the most visually appealing part of Masopust: the masks! There are so many masked and costumed figures in the parade processions, but they each have a special, often centuries-old meaning.
The Spotted Man, or Laufr, gets his name from his costume. People believed that the number of spots on his attire would correspond to the number of good days he will have in the coming year, so his outfit usually features a variety of fabric swatches patched together to produce a spotted look.
His wife is always played by a man. In villages and smaller cities, the couple leads the group door-to-door to perform a dance, which is said to bring prosperity to the house and everyone in it. As payment, the group solicits donations of pork goods, donuts and other treats. Besides the costumed characters, the group also travels with a brass band to play the music as everyone else dances.
The group also contains some straw men. Women who hope to become pregnant often bless the straw in these characters’ outfits.
The four Turkmen as they are called (they aren’t actually Turkish) represent foreign soldiers who used to be feared. They’re pretty identifiable, with red dots on their cheeks and colorful hats with ribbons and paper roses, and their dances are believed to help bring about a prosperous harvest in the spring.
The chimney sweepers are tasked with throwing people into the snow and smearing soot or shoe polish on their faces. It is said that throwing women in particular in the snow would bring fertility for them.
One of the most popular animal characters in the procession, the mare, has great symbolic meaning. Usually a two-person costume, the mare is condemned for its sins and killed by the character of the Knacker at the end of the parade. Shortly after, though, the female horse is revived with a drink of alcohol from the Knacker.
Another popular animal is the bear character, who often wears a leash and is accompanied by a tamer. Women can dance with the bear in hopes of bringing fertility in the coming year.
We’re not quite sure what the monkeys represent in Masopust, but beware of them! They’re notoriously mischievous.
Other characters that sometimes appear in the masquerade are ring masters, jesters, Bacchus, a huckster who trades items with onlookers, the king and queen of Masopust, and a scary horned creature known as Brůna.
Check out Masopust festivities on Saturday, March 2 at 1 PM in…
Malá Strana: parade from Loretánské náměstí
Letná: at the National Agricultural Museum
Karlín: parade from Kaizlovy sady, activities at Karlínské náměstí
& activities all weekend in Žižkov/Vinohrady with the parade held on Tuesday, March 5 at 5 PM from náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad.