By Martin Divisek
Valasska Polanka/Francova Lhota, Czech Republic, Dec 6 (EPA-EFE).- A horde of demons, devils and grim reapers – alongside Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children – stalk the streets of a quaint village in Wallachia, the cacophonous sound of clanging metal cans that hang from their creepy costumes announcing their arrival to the local children.
It is a cold December morning in Valasska Polanka and Francova Lhota, neighboring hamlets in rural eastern Czech Republic, and dozens of locals are roaming from house to house, bringing sweets and token gifts to the village children – except for those have made it onto Saint Nick’s naughty list.
The age-old custom, versions of which are held across many parts of central Europe, is being held this year amid unprecedented restrictions on people’s movement and interactions due to the coronavirus pandemic, whose second wave hit the Czech Republic particularly hard.
“The boys were afraid that people in the houses would not open (their doors to us), that people would be afraid, but it is the same as last year. Where there are children, they open,” one of the sheep wool-wearing devils named Roman Suta tells epa-efe.
“They are opening even more than last year,” he adds. “It’s probably because they want the tradition to be preserved, and the main point is the children.”
Some of the youngsters seem gleefully captivated by the ghoulishly disguised gremlins and their thick sheep’s wool overcoats, demon masks and colorful ribboned hair (meant to represent burning flames), while others – particularly the younger kids – cower behind their parents, unsure of what to make of these creepy creatures that have briefly taken over their village. Some of the bolder children even ‘provoke’ and are playfully chased by the demons.
The tradition sees Saint Nicholas – the ancient Roman patron saint of children whose secret gift-giving gave rise to the modern figure of Santa Claus – bringing cheer to kids accompanied by devils, a local feature that is similar to the better-known festival of Krampus, Nicholas’ evil counterpart who punishes children who have been bad. Only a handful of villages near the town of Vsetin put on this version of the parade each year.
The pandemic and related restrictions have forced the custom into some adjustments. This year, for instance, “Saint Nicholas goes up to the house first and the devils jump at the gate and wait for him to instruct them to approach,” Suta explains.
“It happened to us at our third house – Saint Nicholas was at the door and a man peeked out of the window to tell us that he was infected and told us to leave”.
But most locals welcome the ragtag ensemble with open arms. “People were looking forward to it, they called (to ask) when we would come. Finally something is happening again,” David Macek, one of the devils in Valasska Polanka, says.
“This is the first big event or parade this year. Everything else was canceled. There was no Easter or Carnival.”
Macek says that the village’s elderly residents had never seen such heavy restrictions on public life and cultural activities as they have this year, not even during the Second World War.
Fortunately, some sense of normalcy could return to this part of the Czech Republic after the country was placed under level 3 of the government’s alert system, allowing the parade to go ahead.
“The government allowed the third level only two days in advance. Fortunately, we had everything ready,” Macek says.
The costumes are all inherited from older relatives and previous generations of demons and grim reapers, while others make the disguises themselves from sheepskin.
“Some things are inherited, (or if) someone is a newcomer and he doesn’t have a costume in the family, he sews one himself from sheepskin,” says Suta.
“The bells, which are welded from sheet metal, weigh about 16 kg. The masks in each village are a little different,” but each town has the same base “and that’s the sheepskin.”
Macek’s devil coat is 15 years old, he says.
Despite the obstacles, the tradition went ahead largely unchanged, save for a few alterations.