Burning Witches Through Brno

I like traditions. Shepherd’s Pie on St. Patricks Day. Fajitas on Cinco de Majo. Steak on New Year’s Day and my name day. Salmon on Christmas Eve. Goose on St. Martin’s Day. Clearly, I like to eat.

But there are other personal traditions: spring starts with Beh Luzanky and winter starts with Velka Pardubicka. Whenever my preferred political candidate loses a big election, I drown my sorrows in whiskey.

Of all my personal traditions though, the last day of April is my favorite. It involves food and drink. It also involves fire.

Pálení čarodějnic is a Czech tradition that takes place on April 30. It translates to “burning witches”. People used to ceremonially jump over the fire and, in some places, they used to burn an effigy of a witch. Now, it is basically just a huge bonfire to burn stuff. There are several places around Brno that will have bonfire-based events. Mine is in my backyard.

My personal version of the tradition includes many friends, many little fat sausages named špekáčky, a lot of beer and some alcohol-based pyrotechnics. It works on several levels:

1: Clean up after the winter.

I never seem to have a problem finding stuff to burn. Two young children produce an amazing amount of stuff that needs to be eliminated. My attic is an endless source of burnable things. Plus, I have a lot of wood this year: last summer I removed the front-yard trees to accommodate a dozen meters of necessary sewage pipe and this winter I had to eliminate an old apple tree that was going to fall on the neighbour’s building during the next wind storm.

2: Use social pressure to get my backyard into decent shape.

A friend of mine once told me that the best motivation to finish a marathon is to tell everyone you know that you are running it. That is basically how I treat my annual event.

I married into a home with a large rectangular backyard that stretches back about 100 meters. It has slowly been tamed off weeds and tree stumps such that it has large sections of grass with a two-meter-in-diameter fire pit in the middle. There is much more to do. But having a date on the calendar that everything should look respectable keeps me motivated.

3: Recreate the camping experience.

Some might consider that there are many negatives to an outdoor, open-fire experience. And, there are definitely discomforts: My backyard is in a constant state of construction. It can be dangerous to walk back to the house, especially when it is dark and after a few beers. It is dirty. The foldable camping chairs are uncomfortable. The smoke always seems to blow into your face. You always burn your fingers when roasting a klobasa. Špekáčky taste great but always make me a little bit queasy. The beer quickly becomes lukewarm despite the cooler. Ketchup or mustard always ends up on your clothes. There are bugs. The toilet is the trees further back.

Yet, somehow, none of this matters. Simply staring into an open fire for a while seems to overpower all of the negatives.

3: Attempt to exorcise the demons of the previous 12 months.

An important aspect of my personal Burning Witches is the expurgation of negativity. I am a season-ticket holder for FC Zbrojovka, which means I get a program for every game. Unfortunately, since the team has been consistently terrible in the decade I have followed them closely, I have many programs that bring many bad memories.

Hence, the ceremony. I think of the game, try to recall the pivotal points and re-feel the pain. After a moment, I throw the offending program in the fire and splash on some slivovice to let the blast of fire purify the disappointment. Running race bib numbers, tram fines and terrible drafts of failed short stories have since been added. Friends sometimes bring old love letters and journals and their own demons to burn.

Since Zbrojovka is still losing and I am now getting traffic tickets instead of tram fines, it is unclear whether the ceremony works. Kometa Brno has won a second consecutive title and at least some people have found love, so the jury is still out.

5: Have a reason to slow down and reflect.

Without stepping off of the treadmill of life and taking a moment to reflect on what has been happening, it is hard to have perspective. New Year’s Day and my birthday on Aug. 30 are natural reflections points; April 30 happens to land nicely so that all three have four months between them.

It is also a great reason to get your friends together. Everyone has their own jobs and lives. It is nice to see everyone in one place, even if every item of clothing smells like smoke afterwards.

And, since I generally have my best friends around, it is a great place to make announcements. April 30, 2014 is when I officially told everyone that Gaby was pregnant with our first child, who, in six months and one day, turned out to be Zoe.

* * *

Actually, more recently, April 30 has become special as the deadline for the Brno Short Story Writing Contest. Last year contest co-founder Lee Adams and I drank beer and listened to our mobile phones as dozens of entries beeped into the contest inbox as midnight approached. This year we hope for the same enthusiastic response.

Do you have any personal traditions? What are they? Please share.

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