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facts & arguments

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As a child I was regularly whipped by males.

Every Easter Monday, I would dress in nice clothes, sit down on a worn-out couch in our living room and wait for male visitors, usually family and friends.

Over the course of the whole morning, they would drench me with cold water, lash me with willow branches and spray stale perfume on me as part of a senseless tradition that (likely) all women in Slovakia (likely) despise.

Afterward, I would obediently thank my guests, offer them decorated eggs, food and some money, and tie colourful ribbons on their willow whips.

The lashings rarely hurt, the water was never unbearably cold and the perfume was not excessive. Yet, to many, all of this must sound horrifying. For me, it was simply annoying.

Slovak Easter traditions are a peculiar mix of pagan spring rituals, Christian symbolism and blatant yet socially accepted gender inequality.

The cold water signifies health, beauty and purification. The whipping has been symbolically linked to fertility, and sometimes, rather illogically, to the suffering of Christ – illogically because the objects of the whipping are only women.

I am not sure what the cultural or historical justification for the stale perfume is. I suspect that in my case it may have been a result of my younger brother's Easter preparation strategy, which entailed, among other things, mixing up the remainders of all the expired perfumes he could find.

Much like many other traditions, Slovak Easter rituals are often perplexing, unfounded, appalling or outrageous in the eyes of outsiders. My Canadian friends, for example, are usually aghast at my stories of childhood experiences. They openly voice their disapproval and rediscover their appreciation for the Easter Bunny.

Sometimes, my Easter stories ignite a faint flame of activism among my listeners. It is usually limited to such suggestions as: "You should do something about it!"

But do what? The social pervasiveness of many traditions rarely allows a way out.

When I was growing up in Slovakia, there was only one way to avoid the indignities of Easter Monday: wake up early and find an obscure hiding place. Given that I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in the most populous borough of Slovakia's capital, Bratislava, the only available options were closets: obvious and temporary hiding spots, which, once discovered, were unusable in subsequent years.

Leaving my country was my ultimate, although unintended, escape. I came to Canada initially in pursuit of higher education, but then I decided to stay.

As a new immigrant I expected to adhere to the customs with which I had grown up. Many of them were pieces of home of which I was not ready to let go. Others, such as Easter Monday, were so firmly ingrained in me that I thought I had no choice but to perpetuate.

Yet upon my first Easter in Canada, 11 years ago, while I was puzzling over the significance of the Easter Bunny and hunts for chocolate eggs, no one came looking for me – none of the other male Slovak nationals who resided nearby. I no longer had to hide, shield my legs from willow branches and change clothes several times over the course of a few hours.

For the first time in 18 years I avoided that senseless tradition that (likely) all women in Slovakia (likely) despise.

This one piece of home I was eagerly willing to let go. Its absence did not trigger that dreaded wave of distressing feelings – the fear of loss and disconnection with my roots and the guilt of betraying my culture. Instead, I felt a newfound peace and a small sense of empowerment.

Since I had little interest in bunnies and oversweetened chocolate eggs in shiny wrappings, I decided to ignore Easter altogether. And I have ignored it ever since.

As a naturalized Canadian I have treasured my ability to choose the traditions I find appealing and disregard those I detest. I have come to understand that it is fine to let go of some pieces of home and adopt a few new ways instead.

This Easter, I think I will again ignore the bunnies and all the cheap chocolate in shiny wrappings. I will prepare neither an Easter turkey nor traditional Slovak meals. I won't bother painting or hunting for eggs.

And I certainly won't set foot on Slovak soil. For me, the ability to escape is an invaluable aspect of an immigrant's freedom.

Miriam Matejova lives in Vancouver.

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