April 21, 2021
Culture Corner: Welcome to the Czech Festival
In the mid-nineteenth century, a migration of Czechs and Slovaks fanned across the upper Midwestern United States. The Midwest soil was nutrient-rich, and the immigrants began to farm crops they knew, like sugar beets. The migrants gathered together in communities and joined fraternal societies that were bonded by their heritage. As the years went on, the immigrants began to assimilate to their new land while maintaining the traditions of the old country.
Today, those traditions are alive and well in communities all across the United States. Czech Americans love to celebrate their heritage with pageants, dances, songs, and, of course, kolache, a delicious pastry made of puffy dough with fruit in the middle. One of the most widely celebrated events often takes place around harvest time in multiple states: the Czech Festival!
One of the most exciting events at the festivals is the Czech Slovak Pageant. According to the Miss Czech Slovak US Pageant website, nine states, including Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin have pageants where queens are crowned to represent their state at the national pageant. Women from other states are invited to participate as well. The coveted position of Miss Czech Slovak US is awarded at the national pageant ceremony, which takes place at the Czech Festival in Wilber, Nebraska each year.
Pageant applicants must have Czech heritage, write an essay about why their heritage is important, and demonstrate knowledge of Czech traditions. The applicants must perform a special talent, such as singing, dancing, gymnastics, playing an instrument, or visual arts. Queens are judged on their essays and presentations at the festival.
Once a queen is crowned, the winner travels around the United States to attend Czech festivals and events that year. To engage younger people, some states will name a Czech princess who travels with queens to events.
Song and Dance
Pageants aren’t the only way to have fun at a Czech festival. Many Czech festivals also host Czech and Slovak dance performances. There are Czech dancers from all over the country, and many even exist in our lodges! Some Czech dance groups have only young members, while others have dancers that span all age groups. In Bannister, Michigan, dancers range from toddlers to over 80 years old!
Dance groups may perform traditional dances or popular current dances, such as the Polka. According to Wikipedia, “The polka is originally a Czech dance and genre of dance music familiar throughout all of Europe and the Americas. It originated in the middle of the nineteenth century in Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic.” Have you ever tried polka dancing? Give it a try!
The dance groups wear traditional dress, known as Kroje (pronounced “kro-yeh”) (singular: kroj), that often include flower headbands with ribbons for the young women and bonnets for the older women. Not all regions of the Czech Republic have costume pieces that have the same meaning. In some, flowers and ribbons may not signal availability but simply youth. In the past, the intricate patterns of the kroj could be linked to your family, village, or regions in Czechoslovakia. There are over 50 different communities and regions recognized as having a unique form of kroj.
Kolache, Kolach, Kolace, Kolacky
After a long day of dancing, or watching others dance, nothing satisfies like a sweet treat. At Czech events across the United States, there’s one food you’d be hard-pressed to miss.
There’s no wrong way to spell or eat a kolache. The name originates from the Old Slavonic word kolo meaning “circle” or “wheel”. They can be filled with a combination of prune, apricot, cream cheese, poppy seed, or assorted fillings. They are labors of love that take more than one ‘rise’ to make them light and fluffy. Try making your own with this easy-to-follow recipe video!
Traditionally, newly engaged women sent small kolaches with three toppings to family and friends as an invitation to the wedding. In America, kolaches became common not only for all special events but also as a beloved comfort food and vehicle for ethnic identification. Kolache recipes are often passed down through generations and are a perfect treat to enjoy at Czech Festival.
As they say…
Bez práce nejsou koláče.
Without work, there are no koláče.
That concludes our Czech Festival Tour!
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*Correction from December Fraternal Herald: The name of the organization that ZCBJ (Western Fraternal Life’s original name) separated from in 1897 was Czechoslovanic Benevolent Society, in Czech the initials were CSPS.