Sweden’s Unique Easter Tradition’s History and Customs Celebrated Today
By Carol Skog
In Sweden, what do head scarves, birch branches, rosy cheeks, or eggs, long skirts, daffodils or brooms, feathers, copper coffee pots, all have in common with witches, yellow, and bonfires? All form cultural elements of Swedish traditional Easter customs. Certain parts of Swedish Easter celebrations may appear strange. Let us explore how Swedish folklore beliefs and the Christian faith used these items combined, creating a completeness of Swedish Easter customs.
Swedish Pagan Vikings converted slowly to the Christian faith. These converted Norsemen blended some accepted ancient ceremonies mingled with folklore beliefs. These customs developed into some Easter Christian celebrations, still enjoyed today. Swedish people tenaciously hold appreciative their festive traditions, some over hundreds of years. Family bonds important, young children inclusive of elderly adults together ritualistically embrace their long enjoyed heritage customs into contemporary Sweden’s Easter fests.
Harbingers of earth’s awakening, springs’ renewal, refreshed, rejoiced. Pagans gathered winters’ downed forest branches, piling them high into mounds. Igniting tar-mounded bonfires, cleansed all woodland’s debris. Ancient mingling of pagan behaviors and Christian observances blended the Swedish folk custom of the stack’s burning. Folklore believed, the large burning stack, chased, warded evil away from Easter. Bonfires’ burning continues, in modern Western Sweden’s celebration of Easter today.
Swedish folklore believed witches possessed evil powers. In an Uppland, Sweden’s church, a painting from 1480 depicts three witches holding drinking horns, awaiting the devil’s filling them with a magic drink. During the 1600’s through early 1700’s, villagers identified many Swedish women as witches, as we did in America; well know for our Salem Witch Trials. Swedish Folklore witches harmoniously mingled within Easter Christian celebrations.
For the entire week before Easter, formally known as Quiet or Holy week, folk beliefs thought witches evil came astir. Superstitious people guarded, hid their broomsticks-after every use, preventing witches from stealing them. Witches rode out of chimneys on broomsticks high into the sky, with a black cat, copper coffee pot on Maundy Thursday. Flying higher to Blåkulla, witches partied, danced, three days with the devil, led by the cacophony, chatter, crackles of black magpies. Dancing faster, drove witches dizzy, resulting in doing or saying things backward. Doing or reciting things backward, then considered a test, proving one a real witch. Folklore claimed real witches, could appear as they were actually in their homes, when they really flew off to Blåkulla for the three days proceeding into Easter. Evidence as a witch identified a woman, when she did or stated something backward.
Since early 1800’s children drew Happy Easter (Glad Påsk) cards for their neighbors. Dressed up in long colorful skirts, cheeks colored with red circles and noses speckled dotted freckles, their tied scarves cover their heads, and shawls cover their shoulders. Riding on their mother’s brooms, they carried their Easter drawn cards and copper coffee pots, portraying Easter Witches (Påskkärringar). Greeted their neighbors with a “Happy Easter” drawing, their neighbors gave them a coin, candy or small cookies, placed in their carried copper coffee pot. In the 1800’s young boys dressed up as tamps and followed their påskkärringar dressed up sisters for neighbors’ shared goodies. Today Swedish girls still playfully dress up as Easter witches; sometimes-young boys masquerade as witches with their sisters, sometimes as tramps on Maundy Thursday.
On Good Friday people in the 1600’s used birch branches to whip one another; lightly sometimes child to parent, parent to child and/ or servants, reminding them of Christ’s sacrificial sufferings. Uses of birch branches evolved into heralds of earth’s spring awakening, or symbolic spiritual renewal. Know as Easter Twigs (Påskris), people gathered branches from birch trees, brought them inside and placed them in vessels of water, weeks before Easter, decorated vibrant with yellow feathers. Hope and time bursts gentle green leaf shoots from the branches, renewal, rebirth, rejoice. People today may buy branches decorated with colorful feather at the markets, or cut and decorate their own birch branches with feathers, decorated eggs or small Easter witch (påskkärring) riding ornaments. (Some people have used forsythia branches for decorations, when birch branches are not available.
Historically, the last day before Lent only, a special cardamom bun,” Semla” filled with marzipan and whipped cream relished once only, before 40 days of fasting strict diets. When I attended school in Sweden, they served the adored bun every Tuesday through Lent. Today Swedes eat scrumptious Semlor buns, mid January through Easter.
Lent diets consisted only of hard thin bread, dried fish and potatoes. Allowed again, spring eggs gave abundant enjoyment at Easter. Hard boiled in water with onion slices turned the eggs a golden yellow. Diet is not restrictive today through Lent.
Vibrant yellow uplifts, after a long, dark, cold winter, color of sun’s warm rays, and baby chicks fill springtime anew. Easter morning happily, allows eggs eaten in abundance, round filled yellow sun resembled yolks. Today eggs still eaten and relished, in various forms, found on all Easter meals’ table. Eggs now decorated varieties of colors, purple, yellow, blue, red, most cheerful. A family game, “ägg pickning,” still enjoyed. Two players face each other, holding their hard-boiled eggs, only allowed “end against end.” Each takes one turn banging their opponent’s egg held still, then the other tries. The person’s egg first cracked is out. Winners with un-cracked eggs can then play against family members, already won their un-cracked egg remaining, against each other until all eggs crack.
Today Easter’s dinner enjoys varieties of herring, eggs, and dilled potatoes. Marinated salmon or lox, Jansson’s temptation (anchovies, onion and creamed potatoes baked) begins, with hard bread and cheeses. Either dilled Salmon or dilled lamb often is served with spring vegetables. Swedish yellow flowers know as Easter lily’s (Påsk lilje) decorate the table. We call these, vibrant yellow daffodils.
You can decorate your own Swedish Påskris, play “ägg pickning” or make a reservation at a local IKEA to taste test a typical Swedish Easter meal. “Glad Påsk”, Happy Easter.