Dressing as demons is considered a rite of passage in these villages, a shift into adulthood, and it is taken very seriously. Here Pust is more important than Christmas. “I’ll explain it this way,” says Rakušček. “If my final exams at school fell on Pust, I’d rather engage in Pust and have to redo the academic year.” It is a true part of the DNA of the locals, and they wouldn’t miss the celebration for the world.
The key differences between the traditions in Drežnica and Drežniške Ravne are in the date, the characters featured and the climactic event. In Drežnica, the tradition falls on Pustna Sobota, the Saturday after Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras). In Drežniške Ravne, the main event takes place a week earlier, and the locals have a passionate focus on following the historical forms of the authentic tradition as best they can, without any modernizations. The climax in Drežnica involves a mock trial and execution of Pust, a straw doll, with it being first shot and then burned. Ravenski Pustovi ends as night descends, and a solemn procession moves from the condemnation ceremony in the town center on foot into a field outside of town, where the demonic Bearers, which exist only in this village’s ritual, drag the Pust in a sled made of branches to burn it on a bonfire.
These traditions are relics of a past that predates the arrival of the proto-ancestors of the entire population of the region. This is evident from the fact that parallel rites can be found across the mountains of Europe, everywhere the Celts settled, but nowhere they did not. Slovenia is now almost entirely Slavic in ethnic origin, but when the Slavs arrived from northern Europe in the 6th century AD, rituals like these were already ancient and embedded in these mountains. It is as if the European settlers of North America had adopted and passionately maintained archaic Native American traditions. These rites are intimately tied to this part of the planet and have been upheld for millennia by whoever happens to have settled here.
The celebrants see themselves as torchbearers (sometimes literally) of ancient traditions and defenders of them for the future. Rakušček continues, “We are very aware of the traditions of our ancestors and the value of the cultural heritage that is in our hands. It’s important for us and for our descendants. It’s a big part of the year, as our tradition runs from December through February. For our boys, this is an important part of their lives and a valued part of growing.”
These three traditions are not meant for visitors to participate in but are rather deeply connected with a rite that is for the locals. That said, tourists are welcome to come and watch. Drežnica is the place most suited to tourists, with most of the events taking place in the town square on Pust Saturday (the Saturday after Mardi Gras) while the tradition in Drežniške Ravne takes place a week before. This region of Slovenia is easiest to access by flying into Ljubljana or Trieste and renting a car, as public transport is irregular and slow around these parts.
Pust has become a more general term for a costume party around this time of year, featuring a parade for children with a great deal of donuts consumed in many parts of Slovenia. But the oldest traditions in the Julian Alps remain these celebrations of benevolent demons, traditions so treasured that they are listed on the national Register of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The locals are zealous protectors of the cultural heritage of their land. Every year, without fail, come February they transform into this cast of demonic characters to chase away the winter. And maybe there’s something to it: every year winter slinks off into hiding after the burning of Pust, and spring appears.
Perhaps we have Slovenian demons to thank?