EASTER IN SWEDEN
The Swedish translation for Happy Easter is "GLAD PASK!"
In Sweden long ago, Easter was thought to be the witches time. In west Sweden they lit Easter bonfires around which people would scream and yell to frighten away the witches. On Maunday Thursday the witches were said to fly off to “Blakulla” and return again on the Saturday.
Nowadays, children dress up as Easter witches on the Thursday before Easter and go from house to house and are given gifts or money - very similar to the North American Halloween.
After the long fast during Lent, eggs were eaten in celebrations, often taken from the nests of the spring birds and children would play games with eggs - such as rolling the eggs. The older children in Skane would assemble at a special celebration when they would dance, play games and eat eggs.
The Easter egg has a long history . In graves from B.C. in Gotland, colored clay eggs were found. They were painted in red and yellow as the eggs represented the sunrise and sunset - and even today the Swedes, like other Europeans paint their eggs at Easter.
As a reminder of Christ’s suffering, young people would thrash each other with silver birch twigs on the morning of Good Friday. These silver birch branches, decorated with brightly colored feathers, were the originator of both the Lent and Easter decorated branches.
Semlor are special buns that used to be associated with Lent but now seem to be sold earlier and earlier in the year. They consist of a sweet bread bun when the middle is scooped out and filled with marzipan and whipped cream. Otherwise, lamb is often eaten at Easter as well as many of the dishes eaten at the Christmas Smorgasbord.
Easter Sunday, of course, cannot come earlier than March 22 nor later than April 25 and must fall on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. In Sweden, the Easter holiday lasts four days — Friday through Monday — ample cause for escape to the mountains to enjoy the newly returned warmth of spring.
Easter has always been a serious festival — a fact noticeable years ago in people’s mode of dressing at this time. There is not the same wealth of popular custom and tradition attached to Easter as there is to Christmas. However, the two festivals have one particular thing in common: The majority of the customs are connected with the home and the family.
In pagan times, the people of Scandinavia believed that several times each year witches flew over the lands to confer with the demons who were their masters at meetings called Witches’ Sabbaths. Thursday, particularly the one before Easter, long has been regarded as the night favorable to such super-natural dealings.
“Much superstition was also connected with this day. Witches were astir and it was necessary to keep all doors closed. And it was important not to lend anything or give anything away. For further protection all thresholds and door posts should be smeared with tar and the sign of the cross be marked out everywhere, even on the noses of the cattle. It was believed that witches needed animals to ride on for their Journey to Blakulla, the fictitious mountain where the devil awaited them for a secret conclave. In addition, these witches needed glowing amber from the fireplaces and butter or ointment in their horn -- better close the damper quickly . . Had not the people of old seen them ride on their broomsticks through the sky with the black cat, the horn, the kaffepetter (coffee pot), and
with their hair flowing in the wind? And had not grandmother told in her days about the elaborate feast the witches had each year with the devil himself, and about the wild dancing afterwards to the music of croaking magpies? Oh, those birds -- everybody knew they were away over Maundy Thursday!”
In 18th century Sweden, these kinds of imaginings and superstitions produced the same kind of witch hunts and persecutions that we learn of in American history at approximately the same time.
“Good Friday, in Swedish called Langfredag, is still a solemn holiday in Sweden and in childhood memories the longest day of the year, Just as the name indicates. All grown-ups were dressed in black, making them look very somber, and we children had orders to sit quietly with our books hour by hour. We were forbidden to touch steel, such as a needle or a pair of scissors -- It would violate the memory of Christ’s suffering on this day. We were not allowed to go out. No one came calling. In the morning mother had given us a playful little slap with the birch twigs to remind us of what day it was. As if we could forget! This somber mood was so instilled in the Swedish mind that many an immigrant Swede was shocked when he learned that in America stores and shops were open on Good Friday and that the day was regarded as a workday.” +
That witches were in some way identified with Easter may be derived from the fact that Maundy Thursday (Skartorsdag) is followed by Good Friday and is thus of special significance. The dark superstitions of ancient days are gone, but today little Swedish girls take special delight in playing Easter Hags. Early in the afternoon on the Saturday before Easter, which was believed to be the day when the witches flew back from the meeting to their homes, the girls begin to get ready!
To an Easter witch, a shining copper kettle is essential. She should have a broomstick and a black cat as well, but the throngs of little witches who suddenly appear about the streets on the Saturday before Easter usually
content themselves with only the copper kettle and, of course, mother’s old cotton summerskirt (reaching right down to the ground), a shawl, kerchief, and apron. With some soot smeared on her face, the “hag” is ready to terrify the neighborhood.
“Ring,” goes the doorbell — and there are three small witches shaking their kettles at you. To avoid having a wicked spell cast over them, the properly frightened neighbors toss coins or candies into the kettles. The pleased witches curtsy and scamper off, giggling, to the next doorway. Little Easter witches ring doorbell after doorbell, but before long their kettles are full, and they hurry home to help dye eggs.
Perhaps eggs and their decoration play a greater role in Sweden, or at least a more ancient one, than anywhere else, for the Swedes still tend to celebrate the eve of the old festivals in the old way. The significance of eating eggs at Easter -- which, of course, marks the end of the Lenten Fast -- lies, first, in the fact that this is about the time when the hens normally begin to lay; and, second, in the fact that in the past the egg was a delicacy and a luxury, something which was eaten only on special occasions, thus making egg eating at Easter a great event. Today the egg is everyday food, and the Easter habit is retained as a quaint tradition than anything else. The only difference is, perhaps, that most Swedes normally prefer soft. boiled eggs; while on Easter Eve they must be served hard-boiled.
Thus, when the little witches get home again, they set about coloring a really vast number of eggs with brilliant dyes, patterns, comic faces, and even sayings which must be read at the meals. The children can hardly wait to begin. It’s a family party. Even the baby’s chubby hand is guided through the dipping of an egg. Not only do they serve as the main dish on the Saturday before Easter, but some families compete to see who can eat the most-- from 10 to 20 is not unusual. Not all may be consumed that evening, however. Mothers are careful to set aside enough, both raw and hardboiled, for the other games included in the Easter celebration -- the egg hunts through house and garden, the egg rolling down the sandy dunes along the coast (while children shout with glee when they collide and spill all over the slope), and among those who reside
in harbors and fishing communities.
Have you ever heard of aggapickning? Here’s the way it goes: Two players stand opposite each other, one holding his egg still, the other using his for attack. The rule is strict: end to end, never the sides. The winner is the one whose hard-boiled egg is unbroken after the assault. The merriment and contests last far into the day. For those who lose their eggs, there is always a youngster with a basket ready to replenish the losses. Those who have stayed at home for the holiday spend Easter Monday visiting friends and relatives and sipping tall glasses of the traditional ‘eggtoddy’ — a delicious mixture of egg yolk, sugar, sherry and boiling water.
To a Swede, much of the enjoyment of Easter is his anticipation of spring and the warm weather outings which follow. He thinks of his boat and how it needs to be scraped and repainted and of the first balmy day when the family congregates with tools and paint and a coffee basket to help father get their beloved boat ship-shape for those eagerly awaited jaunts on the lake or along the coast. Only a true boat lover can stand the thin screeching noise of the scrapers as they rip off the peeling varnish and paint. But, to him, this is spring’s own music. By Whitsun, she’ll be ready. Launching will be a communal business. Every boat owner comes to lend a hand, pushing the boat over rollers to the launching cradle, which gently slides down into the water. Next weekend, the yard will be deserted. The fine companionship of the scraping days will be over for this year, and once tireless scrapers will be lazily afloat on the myriads of lakes or among the countless islands which dot the Swedish coast line .- but that time is not yet.
As the days grow longer and warmer, thoughts and celebrations turn outward, for a true Swede, in warm weather, will spend as much time enjoying the sun, greenery, and glories of nature as he can for as little time as it is available. Thus, at Walpurgis Eve and Midsummer most of the celebrations are outdoors and involve large gatherings of people - not indoors with artificial light and only family-oriented, like Christmas and Easter.
A blaze of light. . - a crackling roar...flames in the night sky. . . the thunder of warriors banging sword hilts
against tough leather shields — these were the characteristics of the Viking ceremony of Walpurgis Eve (Valborgsmassoaftenn), the last day of April. The stirring ceremony has survived from those pagan days, when the warriors held annual feasts in honor of the returning sun and warmth. Surely, this frightening scene sent the demons of darkness and gloom scuttling elsewhere, as it wa8 meant to do. When the Scandinavians were converted to Christianity, they did not easily forget their old fears and would not give up their pagan rituals.
Valborgsmassoaften survives today in Sweden as an annual festival in honor of the returning sun and warmth. In the Lhnstian year, however, the spring rite falls on a feast day of St. Walpurga —a good, wise, and learned lady who lived in the eighth century and was believed to have worked many miracles. Today, the custom is celebrated throughout Sweden as a welcome to lengthening days. Dominant in the Walpurgis Eve celebrations is the lighting of large bonfires around which crowds of people gather. Usually, a speaker eulogizes the advent of spring and the spirit of the fire, which foretokens the coming of the sun. While the young people raise their voices in spring songs and dance in a ring around bonfires, the elders study the flames: If they blow to the north, spring will be late and cold; if to the south, early and mild.
Let us not forget the spring festivities of students -- most particularly at Uppsala, but now at all the other universities as well when, on the eve of April 30, amidst great ceremony, they formally don their white student caps, as yet another indication of the coming of spring, . a custom which began in the 19th century but continues as a tradition today.
Visualize thousands of students gathered in front of the university library on the hill, each carefully concealing his precious white velvet cap with a shiny black visor earned through years of hard study in a gymnasium, or secondary school. Only those graduates have the right to wear them. Not worn since cold weather set in, they prepare to put them on again for the first time that year.
A university official stands on the balcony. Promptly at 3:00 p.m. he signals. The students pull out their caps and, with a tremendous shout, wave them high in the air. A speaker talks briefly about past and future accomplishments, concluding with an
invitation to join in a four-fold cheer for our nordic spring: Long may she live’
Arm-in-arm, the students charge down the hill to the square, those first lines turning about and back up the hilL With a roar, they crash into the’ students still running down to tin square. The spring “fun battle” goes on for the rest of the afternoon.
At twilight, becoming quiet arid solemn, the students take up lighted torches, banners and flags and march in silence up the slope below the castle. As the bell strikes nine, the men’s university choir breaks into the traditional student songs, most praising the return of spring. But always there is the special song: “0 Sing of the Student’s Happy Days” After another speech welcoming spring and more cheering for king and country, the young people stream away to have supper at restaurants and homes or at one of the 13 student clubs where the singing and dancing continue until sunrise.
by Karen K. Johnsen District Cultural Director
Vasa Order of America April, 1983