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Czech Republic: Tourists Flock To Prague For Commercialized Easter

Easter is traditionally the most significant holiday in the Christian world. It celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, who was crucified on Good Friday and raised from the dead the following Sunday. However, many of the customs of Easter have little to do with Jesus or Christianity. RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill finds that in Prague the day is becoming a major commercial event.

Prague, 12 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech Republic is one of the least religious nations of Europe. However, in the Czech capital Prague, the celebration of the Christian holy day, Easter, involves virtually the entire population and swarms of tourists in what is becoming a world-class commercial event.

Christians of the world celebrate Easter 2001 next Sunday (15 April). This year is one of the rare occasions when Orthodox Christians, using the ancient Julian calendar, and those of Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations, using the modern Gregorian, celebrate their holiest of days on the same date.

Christians believe that Roman soldiers executed Jesus by crucifixion near Jerusalem on Good Friday, and that he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. However many of the customs of Easter -- colored eggs, the Easter bunny, new spring wardrobes and the name "Easter" itself -- have nothing at all to do with Jesus Christ.

This is evident in Prague. Known as the city of a thousand spires because of its many churches, it also could be called the city of thousands of unbelievers because it has so few actual churchgoers. Tourists and residents have been thronging the city for more than a week to celebrate a non-religious kind of Easter.

Jan Buergermeister, the mayor of Prague's first district, the city center, tells our correspondent in an interview that the loveliness of Prague in the spring and the joy of Easter just seemed natural partners.

"Easter is a very happy time for tourists. At this time of the year Prague is at its best as long as the weather turns out to be good. And this period is also a welcome time for three or four days of holiday-making for tourists. Prague is well-prepared for this."

Buergermeister says that neither City Hall nor any one person planned to make Easter a Prague event. The crowds started coming in the 1990s, soon after the fall of communism, and enterprising vendors responded to the opportunities. There has been no official effort to promote the event.

"I think Prague actually is becoming overcrowded from the time we were able to open up to the world. I don't think there is any [need] for an increase of people. I don't think it's possible to fit in any more."

In Prague's Old Town Square, a village of vendors' huts now forms each Easter season. It is reminiscent of the Christchild's markets in major German cities at Christmas. Vendors offer trinkets and souvenirs, and crafts, especially gaily colored hand-painted eggs.

Prague native Eva Kralova is one of the vendors.

"This fair at Old Town Square has been here for eight or nine years, I think. So it is already a tradition."

Kralova says she guesses that the tradition has grown each year to the dimensions it now has reached, perhaps because of a combination of the attractions of Prague in the spring and the market and other festivities and customs.

"I think that there are probably more customers [each year], and especially the number of foreign tourists is growing. Prague is becoming more interesting and maybe more affordable too."

The tourists throng to the Easter market, and that's good for business, Kralova says. She adds wistfully that she is saddened by the diminishing importance of the old traditions of family fun, special foods, and celebration. At least in the market area, the event has become crass business and commercialization. She is unsure how this happened.

"I cannot judge. I see it from my viewpoint as a vendor, but I would say that this whole thing has become mainly business, and I guess the traditional in it is disappearing."

Mayor Buergermeister concurs with Kralova's viewpoint. City Hall, he says, has tried to limit the merchandise to genuine Czech crafts and souvenirs and to control the exuberant multiplying of vendors, but the event has a momentum all its own.

"Our main aim is to set guidelines by issuing permission for the range of goods and also the numbers of stalls and the locations for those stalls."

The flood -- both of tourists and entrepreneurs -- has overwhelmed all controls, he says.

In many places in the world, Christian believers still flock to their churches to celebrate the risen Christ. In the more formal churches, they greet each other with the declaration, "Christ is risen!" and the response, "He is risen, indeed!"

Throughout the world, however, the season is also greeted with customs far older than Christianity. Many cultures have celebrated from ancient times the spring rebirth of life. The name Easter itself derives from the same root as the direction 'east' from which the sun rises. The Scandinavians named a goddess Ostra and the Teutons, Ostern or Eastre. In each case, she was the embodiment of spring and fertility.

When Christianity came along, with its scriptural account of the death and resurrection of Jesus, its season coincided not only with that of the Jewish Passover but also with that of many ancient observations.

Modern Easter customs involving eggs and rabbits, symbols of fertility, evidently sprung from these earlier pagan associations. Coloring of Easter eggs is a custom wherever in the world Christians gather, but the craft has reached an elevated form in Eastern Europe. In Russia, Romania, Hungary, Prague, and elsewhere, hand-decorated eggs have emerged as an art form sought after, not only by tourists, but also by collectors.

Kralova, the vendor in the market at Old Town Square, customarily sits in her stall painting eggs as she waits for customers.

"I, personally, my specialty is dried-flower arrangements. And painting eggs has been my hobby since childhood. I start preparing for Easter about two or three months before the holiday."

Hand-painted eggs sell at Old Town Square from prices less than one U.S. dollar to several dollars, depending upon their complexity and the method used. Our correspondent asked Kralova if all her work was worth it at that price.

"If it weren't worth it [to me] I wouldn't be here, but first of all it is my hobby, as I said. And I like being with people and watching life from a different perspective than I would have if I were painting eggs at home."

This custom, it seems, is also big business elsewhere. Customs officials in Hungary said last week that they had detected a trucker seeking to smuggle 570 painted eggs from Romania via Hungary to England. A customs spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Miloje Bunyevac, said the eggs would have brought good money in London flea markets.

In Hungary, alone, he said, 50 million decorated eggs are sold in the days before Easter.

(Magdalena Sebestova and Dora Slaba assisted with this feature.)