Czech Prom Season: A Story of a Feathered Raffle Win

Authors: Griffin Trau, Katie Winner, Alanna Powers (current Fulbright ETAs)

If you’re an American, chances are we all had similar prom experiences in high school. Usually a few weeks before graduation, boys ask girls to the prom. Girls buy a fancy dress, and boys a nice suit with a matching tie. Prom night consists of about an hour of picture taking with your date and friend group, followed by a ride to prom in a nice car or a limo. The dance itself is about three hours long, and the only people in attendance are typically students at the school with a handful of teacher chaperones. After prom ends, around 10 or 11 p.m., all the students leave and go their separate ways for the night, usually to a post-prom hang out.

After attending six (and counting!) Czech proms, I can confidently state that Czech proms are nothing like American proms. At all.

My school, Střední Škola Informatiky a Služeb, is a technical school with seven different concentrations of study. Of these seven, six of them take the Maturita exam at the end of their fourth year, the passing of which allows the students to graduate from high school. Each of these six concentrations has its own prom that takes place sometime between January and February. The point of the Czech prom is less of a symbolic ending of times the way it is in America, and is more like a ceremony, acknowledging the hard work that the students have done and encouraging them for this final step of Maturita that lies ahead in a few months. Although American prom is a symbol for the end of high school, Czech prom is more like a ceremony that acknowledges the hard work that the students have done and encourages them for their future, specifically their Maturita exam. Basically, it is a night of dancing and fun before the fourth year students get serious about studying for their exams.

I was lucky enough to go to three of my own secondary school’s proms, and two with another Fulbright ETA in the town of Rakovník. All five of these proms were organized entirely by the students — they were responsible for finding a venue, selling tickets, providing music and anything else that was included in the night. The first big difference that I noticed was the crowd. Czech prom is a family affair. Moms, dads, grandparents and young children were in attendance. Other attendees included friends of the students and alumni of the school. All of the students’ former teachers and their spouses were also invited to the affair.. However, there is no real need for the students to give an invitation to anyone, because the proms are open to anyone who wants to buy a ticket.

The night usually starts around 7 or 8 p.m. with some kind of show. My cosmetology students put on their own hip-hop routine, complete with matching camo outfits. The students in Rakovník hired a woman and her dog to do agility tricks on the dance floor. After this opening performance, there was time to find a seat and get a drink. Since the drinking age in the Czech Republic is 18, prom would not be complete without a bar. As the prom is a night of celebration, many of my students invited me to take a shot with them, something that is perfectly acceptable here. 

The next big event of the evening is the sash ceremony. Each member of the class lined up in the middle of the dance floor, and one by one the students’ names were called. When each name was called, the student would walk down the dancefloor to a favorite song, kind of like a walk-up song in baseball. Some of the most popular songs from this year were “Dance Monkey” and “Old Town Road,” which is exactly what I would have expected if this were an American event. As the students walk down the dance floor, friends and loved ones throw coins at them as a symbol of good luck. Although this can be quite a profitable experience, it can be rather painful as well—I witnessed at least three students get bopped in the head by a Koruna. Once the students reach the end of their walk, their head teacher gives them sashes with their names and the year on it. This ceremony is the biggest part of the evening, as each student is officially deemed ready to take the Maturita exam. 

After this ceremony, there is a lot of dancing. It is not the dancing you would see at an American prom. Almost all Czech students take formal ballroom dancing lessons for at least a year, and many Czech people continue to take these lessons as a hobby. Because of this, there are many formal dances with traditional Czech songs, such as “Srdce nehasnou,” by Karel Gott, who is one of the most successful Czech singers of all time. However, the prom is still an event for the teenagers, so these types of dances are mixed in with today’s top hits.

After many hours of dancing and drinking, the clock strikes midnight, which means it is time for the midnight surprise. This is a performance planned, like everything else, by the students. The performance is more free-spirited than anything else in the evening. Most of the midnight surprises I saw included scantily clad students dancing to pop songs. As an American, it’s hard to imagine my 18-year-old self (or my 22-year-old self) doing something like a strip tease in front of all of my teachers and my entire family, but it is nothing short of the norm in the Czech Republic. At the end of this performance, the students gather together, take off their sashes, and stomp on them as a symbol of good luck.

This part of the night signifies a change of pace for the rest of the evening. The music changes to almost exclusively pop, and prom turns into more of a club atmosphere. One of the proms I went to even hired a DJ from Prague for the post-midnight hours. Judging by the students’ reactions, he seemed to be a pretty big deal.

The partying rages on until 2 in the morning, when the students’ night in the spotlight comes to an end. Their job is not quite done, however, because the next morning they will all wake up, get dressed and go back to the dance floor—this time to clean up the mess from the night before. 

Although the bulk of my formal season consisted of attending my fourth-year students’ proms, the kids are not the only ones that like to dress up and have a good time. The majority of Czech towns, villages, and even community clubs also have their own winter formal events. I was lucky enough to receive an invitation from my mentor to the Dubenec Hunters’ Ball. Dubenec is a village with a population just under 700 people, located about 10 kilometers from my “home”town, Dvůr Králové nad Labem.

At first, the ball didn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary. I had another Fulbright ETA visiting me for the weekend, and the two of us got beers and found seats near my mentor and her husband. Eventually my mentor asked us if we wanted to check out the “tombola,” which is Czech for raffle. All of the secondary school proms have a tombola, so I wasn’t surprised that the Hunters’ Ball would have one as well. My mentor told us that the prizes were in the basement, and led us downstairs to see what they were. 

I have never had so many pairs of eyes stare at me at once. There, hanging on strings from the ceiling, were at least 30 dead pheasants. Across from them were another 15 dead ducks, and propped up on the wall were the grand prizes: four dead deer and two dead wild boars. My mentor, seeing the obvious shock on our faces, explained that this was a completely normal tradition. A village hunter kills a deer and raffles it off at the ball a week or so later. Besides the multiple animal corpses in the room, there was also the chance to win homemade salamis, cakes, flowers and other smaller prizes. We were told we could purchase tickets later that night. We joked about how funny it would be to win one of the animals, although neither of us have much experience skinning game, or even a place in our flats to store the meat.

Back upstairs, we had the option to eat a dinner of the hunter’s meat, prepared by their wives. The menu included deer medallions with raisins, wild boar with mushrooms, and gulaš. Although I wasn’t hungry, my friend ordered the venison, which was very fresh and tasty.

During our meal, the tombola ticket seller came by, and we bought our first round of tickets. It was 10kc for a ticket, which is about 0.40 USD each. We bought 10, and as we started to open them up we both had the same thought: “How funny would it be if we won a pheasant?”

With a new goal in mind, we ripped through all 10 tickets. To our dismay, each ticket was blank, indicating that we hadn’t won anything. However, we were determined. We could see the tombola man in the other room, still selling tickets. We ran to him, held out ten fingers and said “Deset, prosím!” (“ten, please!”) as we handed him another 100kc.

We tore through the tickets with even greater fervor, and this time, we won twice. We had two cards with numbers written on them, one said “152” and the other said “203.” My mentor told us that since our numbers were higher, we would not be getting any of the huge prizes, but we may have gotten some pretty decent ones.

After about another hour of dancing, it was time for the tombola ceremony. Since there were about 300 prizes, only the grand prize winners (the boars and the deer winners) participated in the ceremony. The boar and deer corpses were laid out on the dancefloor, and the people who had drawn the lucky numbers were called up to claim their prizes. The winners stood by their animals, and shook hands with the hunters who killed them and took shots, the animals officially changing hands.

After this experience, the people who had won smaller items could go down into the basement to claim their prizes. As we pushed through the crowd, we searched to see which prize matched the number on our ticket. When we finally saw it, we couldn’t believe our eyes! A pheasant! We had actually done it! My mentor was quite confused as to why we were excited. “There’s barely any meat in that,” she told us. We didn’t care, because for two kids from the East coast of the United States, winning any sort of game bird at a hunters’ ball in the northeast Czech Republic was a pretty big deal. 

Proud of our bird, whom I lovingly named František before being told you shouldn’t name something you plan to eat, we took some beautiful photos together before he was taken away to the trunk of my mentors car.

In the following days, our František would become a soup. But I know that no matter where life takes me, I will always remember my party fowl.

(Photos by Klára Horáčková and Griffin Trau)

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