Well friends – it is Spring again and with it, time for another ancient and mysterious holiday. To me, in some sense, the word “Spring” is an onomatopoeia of tremendous potency. Here in our northern hemisphere, it is the time when a seemingly sleeping world awakens from its near dead slumber – when the dormant stir, stretch, and reach for the light, and the unborn break through to the side of the living. The spell of winter is forcefully and inevitably broken, and everything literally springs to life again. Every gardener and naturalist knows that this is a groundswell of power unlike any other – a caldera in the making. Life, creation and growth are carried in on balmy winds, snow melts, brooks babble, grasses and flowers sprout, sap rises and leaves unfold, insects buzz, migrant birds return to nest and mate, animals bear young, and so on… Come to think of it, my husband and I were no different – our own kids are textbook examples of the fact that procreative juices flow a little extra high in spring – they were born in November and December, respectively! Things are indeed happening. On sunny spring days, my senses experience a veritable feast of sensations! It is as if the volume of blood suddenly increased, and is pumping through my creaky old bones, and smoothing out my dry, wrinkly, chapped winter skin – like a butterfly emerging full force from its chrysalis. Like probably most everyone else, I want to drop whatever obligations I have and run outside to play! No wonder then, that all human cultures have recognized this tremendous life force and wonder of fertility, and celebrated the return of sun, life, and warmth with various rites since the beginning of time. Seeds were planted, sprouted and grew, chickens started laying more eggs again, and animals multiplied. Survival mercilessly depended on this exuberant fecundity. From the dead came the living, and from the living came the dead – over and over and over again, in endless cycles. The list of fertility deities is a mile long…
Most cultures have nurtured some kind of resurrection myth, in addition to the fertility gods and goddesses. The Egyptian pantheon was dominated by Isis and Osiris, the Greeks had Dionysos and Persephone, the Babylonians had Ishtar (Does anyone else notice how her name indeed sounds an awful lot like ‘Easter’), and so on… The Christian resurrection myth of Jesus and a lot of our traditional Easter symbols, borrow heavily from the Jewish story of Passover – commemorating the end of 40 years of slavery in Egypt, in which the Allmighty released 10 plagues on the Egyptians, and the subsequent Exodus, led by Moses. The worst of the plagues was the 10th, which mandated the death of all Egyptian firstborns. To ensure that their firstborns weren’t killed as well, the Jews were instructed to mark their doorposts with the blood of a spring lamb and then eat it. That way, their lives would be spared. Ever wonder why lamb is such a popular dish around Easter? That tradition is at least 3,300 years old… Fast forward to when Jesus and his buddies sat down to eat their Passover spring lamb one fateful night – it became the Last Supper and the precursor to Holy Communion. Another interesting tidbit I found was that according to Christian tradition, the lamb should be slaughtered “in the ninth hour”. In our way of counting time, this means 3 pm – which according to lore was exactly when the Christians’ Son of God died on the cross. Thus, the lamb became a symbol for Christ.
The timing of our comparatively modern Easter has always been a little mysterious to me. It seemed a bit unpredictable, and I could never figure out why its occurrence fluctuated so much until I started reading about it. It turns out that a bunch of Christian bishops called to Council by the Roman emperor Constantin in Nicaea in 325 C.E., once and for all settled the date. Henceforth, Easter has been celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full Metonic (or ecclesiastic) moon following March 20. Usually that date equals the Spring equinox. The Metonic Cycle is a 19 year cycle based on 235 lunar revolutions, and it does not necessarily coincide with the astronomical full moon. Usually, it is close enough, which is why you often see a full moon on or around Easter. Meton was a greek astronomer who lived around 400 BCE, in case you wonder. Anyway, this all means Easter can happen any time between March 22 and April 25. No wonder I was confused…
The Swedish word for Easter is “Påsk” – from the Hebrew word “Pasach” which means “pass by” or “pass over”, in referring to being spared from the aforementioned 10th plague. If we are to trust the 8th century monk Bede’s writings we know that the English word “Easter” stems from a Germanic pagan goddess of dawn and spring, named Ēostre or Ostara. I do wonder if she, in turn, was derived from the Babylonian Ishtar…?
About a millennium after the Last Supper, the attempt at merging Christian traditions with the Norsemen’s spring sacrificial and fertility rites began to reach some measure of success. Not unlike the other ancient solstice-related holidays, the Spring celebrations have been folded into the smothering blanket of Christianity. I think it is fair to say that the Christians added a few things of their own, too. The Devil, for example, never existed in more naturalistic belief systems. After the Bubonic Plague reared its ugly head in the Middle Ages, this addition justified a license to prosecute and kill the so called “witches”. Up until then, they had been known as “wise women” and “healers”, and were the health care providers of their day. But, as contemporary logic would have it, those who could heal, could also destroy. And thus, with the brutal proof offered by the Plague, the patriarchal Christian clergy, who had hitherto enjoyed a peaceful co-existence with its matriarchal counterparts, won the upper hand. This is relevant here, because one of the most common Easter symbols in Sweden, is the Easter witch, or “Påskkärring”. But lets start from the beginning. My apologies ahead of time – this will be a terribly long post – but it should be fairly interesting!
SHROVETIDE In the old, Catholic days, leading up to Påsk was a 40 day-long period of fasting period called ‘Fastan’ (Lent in English). It was reportedly based on Jesus’ 40-day stint in the desert, but I imagine this might also have been a way to justify – and render bearable – the end of the long winter months, which in a worst case scenario likely had more or less depleted the stores of most families in an agrarian society. Sacrificing the best might instill a benevolence in the gods, and ensure a good year to come – a kind of re-birth, or re-storation, in itself.
Lent itself was preceeded by Fastelagen (Shrovetide) – a kind of a last hurrah before the hardship of Lent began. Originally it was a celebratory pig-out, where old and young, rich and poor, royals and commoners gorged themselves with rich and lucious delicacies, attended raucous parties and engaged in all kinds of games and festivities, in preparation of the self-imposed suffering to come. To prevent the excesses from going out of hand, a law was passed in the 1500‘s that stated that the frivolities could not go on beyond six days. Later, it was reduced to three, and this still stands. That it was all about fattening up is evident in the names. Shrovetide begins on a Sunday, often referred to as ‘Pork Sunday, followed by ‘Bun (or Blue) Monday’ and ‘Fat Tuesday’. The celebrations culminate on the Tuesday, also called ‘Shrove Tuesday’. ‘Shrove‘ means to obtain absolution for one’s sins, thus reflecting the wishes of the Catholic church. Swedes recognize it as ‘Fettisdagen’, and the French know it as ‘Mardi Gras’. In Sweden, you would eat brown beans and salted pork. Buns in all shapes and forms made with imported fine wheat flour, were a holiday staple, and eaten throughout. Note the protein binge – during the 40 days of Lent, hardly any animal or dairy products were consumed, except on Sundays, so you’d better eat it while you could.
The three days of Shrovetide was an exceptionally good time to predict the weather to come. Long icicles at night promised a year of generous hay and flax crops. Similarly, clear, dry days brought a good grain harvest – especially so if it was sunny. If the weather started thawing on Fat Tuesday, the cows would be prodigious milk producers in the year to come, and the grains would reach the size of the drops dripping down from the icicles. In the northern parts of Sweden, the weather gods were appeased by sledding down the steepest, snowy slope that could be found, in the dark night of Fat Tuesday. To make it even scarier, the sleds were often tied together into long trains. As they raced down the hill, the riders were to shout or sing something that loosely translates to “Large turnips and long linen!” and other purposeful slogans into the night. Fires and lanterns burned, and musicians might be playing on the sidelines. This spectacle continued until exhaustion, to ensure good growth for the participants. There was a direct correlation between the success of the sled-ride and length of the flax fibers. Interestingly, some of the verses called for riches for oneself, and the opposite for others.
THE FUN AND GAMES OF SHROVETIDE The games and traditions of Fastelagen were often somewhat flirty, and some were focused on invoking divine help in finding a mate. Many had roots in both Roman and medieval times and reached Sweden from Denmark via Skåne, a province which for centuries alternated between being Swedish and Danish. One tradition held that young men would present young maidens with buns on the Blue Monday (the Monday before Fat Tuesday), and they in turn would reciprocate by presenting the young men with eggs at Easter. Over the years, the buns have metamorphosed into a true delicacy – the Semla.
The “Väddelopp” or “Vädjelopp” was a race between one boy and a number of girls. I can’t help it, but the thought of a rooster and a flock of hens comes to mind. The girls lined up evenly spaced along a distance of about a kilometer. While the boy had to run the distance by himself, the girls ran a relay with a key. Not sure if the key had any kind of symbolic (or practical) meaning. Another version of this involved collecting raw eggs in a basket along the way, but in either one, the more slippery and muddy the chosen track was, the more difficult the race. And the funnier to watch, of course. This took place before the practice of wearing underwear became common, so after the official adoption of Christianity, the Men of the Church regarded the race with disdain, as the young girls shamelessly hiked up their cumbersome skirts so they could run faster.
In the Swedish region of Västergötland, the future of a young couple were officially tested to see if they were a good match. The young man and woman would roll down a round bowl-shaped dip in the earth from opposite sides. If they met face to face at the bottom, the wedding was a go. If not, it was called off.
Other traditons would have PETA up in arms, were they to be performed today. One was the coronation of a Cat King and Cat Queen – a tradition which had Roman roots. It began by placing a live cat in a barrel and hang it from a stand in the middle of an open area. Dressed in their Sunday best, the young men of the village riding equally decorated horses, would take turns charging full speed at the barrel and try to crack it with either a club, a sword or any available tool. Kind of like a brutal version of a piñada. The young man that broke the barrel was crowned Kattakung (Cat King) and got to pick himself a Kattadrottning (Cat Queen) from the throngs of adoring young women who no doubt admired the young men’s strength and good aim from the sidelines. The happy couple and the local musicians led a long train of celebrators who rode around to the neighboring farms to show off the “Royal Couple”. As custom would have it, each farmer offered the visitors a “sup” (a shot of Aquavit), so the parade got rowdier and rowdier for each visit. The evening culminated in a gigantic party held in the honor of the new King and Queen. Not until the 1850’s was the poor cat exchanged for less horrifying content (like fruit or a bottle of Punsch). Today, Swedish kids still play a decidedly milder version of “Knock the cat out of the barrel”.
Another rather barbaric “game”, judging from the standards of our time, was the so called Goose Run (Gåsränning). According to the lore documenting the young king’s “youthful adventures”, it was created in honor of Carolus XII’s visit to the southern city of Ystad in 1699. Gallows were rigged up, from which living geese were hung by their feet. To make them as hard to grab and hold on to as possible, the birds were greased from top to toe. The game entailed riding at full speed toward the gallows and try to rip the heads of the poor geese. Reportedly, both men and women took part in the competition while scores of spectators cheered and jeered. The winner was the happy recipient of one gold ducat.
During Shrovetide, masquerades were common, and dressing up beyond recognition was popular far into the 1900‘s. Children got dressed up as pretend brides and grooms, beggars, jesters et.c, and caroused around the farms and homesteads doing tricks, playing games and causing merriment. In short, this holiday mirrored the carnivals of Catholic countries on a more southern latitude that are still popular today. The word “carneval” is said to stem from the word “carne” for “meat” and “vale” for “farewell”, which might make sense since, as we know, meat was not eaten during Lent.
LENT After these three days of lively, raucous revelry, the deathly seriousness of self-deprivation set in, and Lent – the time of fasting – began. For 40 days, one was not to eat meat, eggs, cheese or drink milk or wine, and the preferred dress code was black. It was a period of contemplation and gravity. All festive events were put off until after Easter and song and music were frowned upon. Symbolically, the first day of Lent was Ash Wednesday. The churches burned alder branches from the previous year’s Palm Sunday, sprinkled the ashes with Holy water, and strew the ashes over the congregation. To this day, Catholics around the world mark their foreheads with ashes. For dinner, people would eat a porridge with ashes mixed in. It was said that the ashes would help ones intestines contract to better withstand the hunger that no doubt would ensue.
In 1531 the Swedish king Gustav Vasa and his scheming and somewhat rebellious churchman sidekick Olaus Petri did away with Catholicism in Sweden, and paved the way for the Lutheran Reformation. With this, Swedes no longer had to adhere to the traditions of fasting, but somehow some of the traditions took a while to dismantle. For instance, it took over 100 years for the churches to reinstate organ music during Lent again.
VÅRFRU DAY – MARCH 25 “Vår Fru” refers to the Virgin Mary, but more importantly – it had to do with the return of light. On Mary’s Day, people began going to bed when the light waned. To light lights on that evening was a bad idea, as it would ensure an abundance of bed bugs. With the evolution – or perhaps more so – the deterioration of language, Vårfrudagen is nowadays a slurred version of its former self – it has become Våffeldagen, or Waffle Day. How about that – as a result of linguistic misrepresentation – an entire day currently devoted to waffles… (No, I have no complaints whatsoever…)
Another name for this day is Tranedagen – or Crane Day. It was around this time of year, that the cranes could be sighted as they returned from more southern latitudes. The stately birds have always been hailed as the harbinger of Spring, and the day was duly celebrated with dress-up games. Not unlike Germanic traditions with S:t Nick, the cranes were said to bring gifts from foreign lands to give to children. Children would put their shoes and socks out for the crane to put their gifts in.
On Crane Eve (the day before Vårfrudagen) everyone had to “run crane”. This meant removing your shoes and running barefoot, for the purpose of avoiding catching colds, snake bites, and blistery feet in the year to come. Ideally, one should run over seven homesteads and nine dung hills, but in a pinch, three times around the house would do. During the Middle Ages people reportedly also walked barefoot around the church to repent and receive forgiveness.
The Waffle Day was chockfull of magic powers, and was excellent for predicting weather. Due to Virgin Mary’s purity, the water had better cleaning ability, so it was a great day to do laundry. It was also the day to start plowing the fields. Whatever the conditions of the fields, this would continue for the next 40 days, so hopefully they weren’t frozen.
DYMMEL WEEK or “QUIET WEEK The last week of Lent which begins with Palm Sunday, was the most serious of them all, and is called “Dymmelveckan”. In anticipation of the death of Christ, the expectation was on quiet servitude and religious contemplation, and church attendance was mandatory. By now, people had fasted for well over a month. This week of ‘Passion’ was devoted to mourning the looming death of Christ, and was a subdued and somber affair to say the least. The ‘dymmel’ was a wooden pole, which for this week replaced the metal clapper in the church bells to dampen the sound to less bright and cheerful levels. During these last few days, evil spirits roamed and magic was in the air. Naturally, this added to the gravity of the Dymmel week. The importance of staying out of trouble was even greater than usual.
Each day of the week had its own name, and throughout, it was important to not be the last one up in the mornings. Everyone who rolled out of bed before the unfortunate sleepyhead who awoke last, had unfettered license to mock and ridicule him or her for the rest of the day – sometimes even for the rest of the year! Each day had at least one established moniker that was used for the traditionally sanctioned ridicule.
PALMSÖNDAG Palm Sunday signifies Jesus’s donkey ride entrance into Jerusalem. Per the Bible, throngs of people threw flowers and palm fronds in his path. Obviously, on such northern latitudes as Sweden, there were no palm trees, so the palm fronds were substituted by alder and willow branches, which were cut and brought into the churches. Palm Sunday was also a good time to take advantage of the rising sap in birch trees. Doing so would ensure health and impressive strength. (A fullgrown birch can absorb about 100 gallons of water per day. If you tap it in the spring, it will release litres of sweet-tasting liquid. It is almost like maple syrup, and can be used similarly.)
BLÅ- or SVARTE-MÅNDAG and VITA TISDAG Blue (or sometimes Black) Monday and White Tuesday passed relatively unnoticed in anticipation of Dymmel Wednesday. If anything, a soup made from nine kinds of greens was served, to ensure health and strength. (Remember, people were still fasting during this week.) In some regions, it was common to sweep the chimney and give it a lime-wash to make it nice and white for Tuesday. Since witches and other unsavory characters were said to often enter through chimneys, it was thought that the clean whiteness would deter them from coming.
DYMMELONSDAG – AND A NIGHT OF TROLLS, WITCHES, AND ROAMING SPIRITS Dymmel Wednesday – or Dymmelonsdag – was when the preparations for Easter kicked into high gear. Supernatural beings were at their most powerful, and to avoid getting tangled up in unsavory company, you had to be as quiet as possible. Shhhhh…… As of 10 am, no work emitting any kind of sharp noise was permitted. It was also strictly prohibited to partake in any kind of work or activity which involved any revolving wheel. The concept of “kringgärning”, i.e. spinning yarn, rolling out dough, sharpening knives, milling – in short using anything moving in a circular motion around an axis, was downright dangerous. The night separating Dymmelonsdag from Skärtorsdag presented the height of anxiety. This was when the witches were said to travel to meet the Devil, and they would latch on to anything to get there. The witches might ride on regular objects like brooms, pitchforks, or sometimes even stolen cattle. In order to make these fly, they had to apply a magic salve to them – an ointment no doubt made from poisonous plants and all kinds of other unspeakble ingredients. The salve was kept in an old horn, and the presence of that horn was an unmistakeable sign of a witch. Other tell-tale signs included long hair which was worn loose. Heaven forbid that a hare would scamper past a womans house! That too was cause for indictment!
On brooms (or pitch forks, or whatever mode of transportation they chose) the witches would travel to an island on the east coast of Sweden called Blåkulla. Blåkulla essentially means Blue Hill, and probably refers to how receding distances tend to turn landmasses blue, although nobody knows for sure. The place traditionally thought to host this annual witch convention, was an island off the east coast of Sweden called Blå Jungfrun. As lore would have it, once there, the witches spent a few days hobnobbing with the Dark Lord, and didn’t return home until Easter Eve.
In addition to being the physical object that dampened the sound of the church bells, the concept of the ‘Dymmel’ was almost considered an evil spirit in itself. Chores like chopping wood must be completed before the Wednesday, or the spirit version of ‘the Dymmel’ would get into the wood, and render it fire resistant. Under no circumstances would you chop wood during the last few days of the week, as the farm animals might step on the wood shavings, thus attracting disease. (Just like before Yule, all chores had to be completed before the holiday, or bad things would happen.) Cattle needed protection from being appropriated by the roaming witches, and were carefully locked into the barns. A protective tar cross was painted on the barn door, and an old cart wheel would be placed to block the entrance as a precaution. Should a witch attempt to enter, she would have to run around the wheel as many times as the wheel had turned before being successful.
These were highly unstable and suspicious times, and usual neighborly acts like borrowing and lending were shied away from. There was no knowing whom might have bewitched whom, and since even every-day objects could be tampered with by trolls and evil spirits, everything was kept under close watch. There was protection to be gained from dung – especially manure produced on Dymmel Wednesday. By impaling a knife into your dung heap, you could prevent the trolls from dancing on it. As for gathering spruce branches – none should be brought back from the woods within three days before and after Dymmeln, as doing that would undoubtedly bring snakes to the homestead.
When I was a kid, the extent of our “magic” was to write silly notes like “Kick me” and I’m stupid’, and stick on each other’s backs on Dymmel Wednesday. Not entirely sophisticated, but fun nonetheless. But yes, you can definitely say that the severity of the beliefs have been watered down some over the years.
EASTER WITCHES Like so many other European countries, Sweden went through a period where witches were prosecuted and killed, culminating between 1668 – 1676, but it was a mild case of witch fever compared to, for example, Germany’s. To understand why witches are relevant to Easter, we need to backtrack to Biblical times. According to the New Testament, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus on the Thursday before Easter. This betrayal was interpreted as the unleashing of all the world’s evils – essentially all hell broke loose. The last Swedish witch was burned in 1704. I have written some about it before (here and here), so I won’t repeat much of it in this post. Suffice it to say, that if a witch got stuck in your chimney, you needed to smoke her out by burning nine different kinds of deciduous woods. The fears were very real. To scare trolls and witches off around Dymmel Week, large bonfires were lit, and shots were fired into the air. The shots were the precursors of today’s abundance of Easter firecrackers.
If you wanted to see a witch, you should walk backwards counterclockwise three times around the church while dragging your fingers along the church wall. Each time you came to the church portal, you’d blow into the key hole. Performing this act would enable you to see them. Alternately, you could take an egg, laid on Good Friday, and put it either in your pocket or under your hat while you were attending a church service – that was said to work too!
In modern times, throughout Sweden, boys and girls dress up as witches (or “påskkärringar”) on Skärtorsdag, and Påskafton (Easter Eve) and go from door to door offering little written notes or påskkort (Easter cards) in exchange for sweets or money. The first reference to young people dressing up as witches stems from 1863 in Botilsäter – nearly 160 years after the last witch was executed. As in its American dress-up counterpart Halloween, it took a fair amount of temporal separation from the horrors of the actual witch hunt, before the image of a witch would be accepted into popular culture. In its modern reincarnation, the salve horn has been replaced with an old coffee pot which hangs from the broom handle. Very cute, and probably as close to Halloween as we ever get over there!
SKÄRTORSDAG Maundy Thursday was called Skärtorsdag. “Skära” in this context, means to purify, and relates to Jesus washing the feet of his apostles. Although most witches would probably be well on their way by now, this was still a dangerous day, and you’d do best remaining at home – especially after dark. If you were indeed bent on selling your soul to the Devil, all you had to do was wait for him at a crossroads, where he would meet you. The contract was signed in blood. Such contracts have actually been found, and people caught in the act were inevitably sentenced to death for dabbling in such unsavory matters. Skärtorsdag was considered a good day for oracles, and it was also the optimal day for hunting for troll treasure. Those born on a Sunday would be especially fortunate in such ventures, but you had to be careful. Remaining silent was a must, which was difficult, as the trolls would divert your attention by trying to alter your vision and expose you to the most extraordinary sights.
In Germany, a soup (similar to the one made by the Swedes on Blue/Black Monday) made with nine leafy greens and herbs was traditional fare on this day which they call Gründonnerstag. Throughout Sweden, variations on the same theme were common. It was said to harness strength, and reduce sickness and disease in the year to come.
LÅNGFREDAGEN – A PERFECT DAY FOR A WHIPPING Good Friday is called Long Friday (Långfredag) in Swedish. For some, the goal was to emulate the suffering of Christ on the cross as closely as possible. Others took a lighter approach, but all in all, it was a long and dreary day where one dressed in black, and assumed a somber disposition. To illustrate just how somber, I can tell you that conversations were to be kept to a minimum, and all public entertainment like movies, theatre, dances, etc., were prohibited on that day until 1973! How about that? No wonder the day felt l-o-n-g….
For those who ate on Good Friday, pea soup was a common alternative. Rosehip soup was also popular, as not only was it red as Jesus’s blood, but eating anything from a rose reminded folks of the thorny crown. Some ate heavily salted food, but refrained from drinking, as a gesture of sympathy with Jesus as he thirsted on the cross. The most pious refrained from eating altogether, or even drinking water, and walked with stones or peas in their shoes, to assume some of the suffering. This was also the day where putting your socks on before stepping out of bed was advisable, because if your bare feet touched wood floors, superstition had it that you would soon hurt your toes.
On a meteorological note, this was another great day for predicting weather – it was essentially Opposite Day. If it rained, it would be a dry summer, and vice versa. If this really works, this means that the summer of 2014 in Portland, OR will be a wet one. (I kind of hope it works – we sure could use the water after such a dry winter…)
PÅSKRIS – BRANCHES FOR PROCREATION As mentioned earlier, it was important to not be the last person out of bed every day of the Dymmel Week, but it was especially so on Long Friday. First one up got a bundle of freshly cut birch branches, snuck back inside, pulled the covers off those sleeping, and gave them a good whipping. Some say this was another way to assume some of Christ’s suffering. It probably was, but I think it also goes back farther than that – to far earlier fertility rites. The first written documentation of this “risning” (whipping) is from 1703, where it is said to be an “age-old practice” to enhance fertility and good fortune, indicating that it has been going on for a lot longer. Initially, the father of the house was said to have whipped his family and servants, but the tradition soon assumed the lighter notes of a fun game. Eventually, on this day, all social hierarchy was nullified in favor of the one who was first out of bed. The early bird could whip anyone he or she wanted. Farm hands and servants whipped the farmer, children whipped their parents etc.
Some instances of the “risning” tradition in particular, make me suspect that the custom has older origins than Christianity, and dates back into the mists of pre-history as part of some fertility rite. One variety of this “risning” or “påskskräckan” was for young, unmarried men to descend on houses were young maidens lived, and whip them. Custom had it that the young women then had to offer the men a morning meal, after the beating. The next day, it was the women’s turn to return the whipping, and it was of utmost importance that the branches had been cut on Long Friday, to retain the magic within. The branches have been referred to as “life rods”. It was believed that a beating with branches from that day had a marvelous impact on fertility, and could indeed cure back aches!
The whipping tradition was also part of Fastlagen (Shrovetide), but not to the same extent as on Long Friday. To this day, one of the most common and lasting symbols of spring in Sweden is the cut birch branches, usually decorated with colorful feathers. It is called either Fastlagsris, or Påskris. The fresh-cut branches are put in a vase. After a week or so in room temperature, the buds start to open, and little mouse-ear leaves unfold. Life rod indeed! This, of course, is a powerful symbol for re-birth to just about anyone.
FANCY FEATHERS A relatively recent addition to the birch branches are the colored feathers, which find its origins in the biblical story of Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, where the crowds reportedly threw palm leaves and flowers in his path. In snowy Sweden, there are usually a fairly scant supply of flowers at that time, so colored feathers would make a good substitute. I suppose it could also be that chickens were molting and presented the opportunity, although that is unlikely, since they usually do their molting in the fall. Either way, it looks marvelously festive, and it is a tradition I like. Dyed feathers started appearing around the mid-1800‘s, and have been part of the norm since about 1930. I really miss seeing the town square ablaze with the colorful wares of Påskris-vendors. It’s such a fun infusion of color, just when you need it the most.
EASTER EVE As the witches were now reportedly on their way back, Easter Eve presented a last-ditch effort to keep them away. The night was ablaze with bonfires, which presumably kept the livestock safe, and the witches out. Shots were fired, and horns and trumpets were blown throughout the night to make as much noise as possible to scare trolls, witches and other unsavory creatures away. The noise was kept up through sunrise. Once the light returned on Easter Sunday’s morning, it was believed that all was safe, and the dark spirits had lost their powers. The candles in the churches that had remained un-lit during Long Friday were one by one lighted again. Naturally, to the Christian worshippers, this was also representative of the resurrection of Christ, and the return of divine light.
Nowadays Easter Eve is a formidable pig-out with all sorts of food, but back in the old days, it was still the last day of Lent, and thus the last day of fasting. The real celebration didn’t start until the following day.
EASTER SUNDAY There was a name for the person who was up first on Easter Sunday – Vita Duvan or White Dove. Supposedly, the first person to wake up on Easter Sunday was said to be able to witness the sun “dancing in the sky”. Witnessing this was a big deal, as you could imagine, and I can’t help but think that a little of that aforementioned Belladonna was needed to make that happen…
After such a long time of self deprivation, paralleled with the upsurge of spring, you can imagine that this was quite the celebration! The partying went on for days and young and old took part in the festivities. Besides Easter Sunday, there is also Annandag Påsk (Second day after Easter). For centuries, there was also Third and Fourth Day in close succession, but that practice was abandoned in the 1770’s. I imagine, in the Catholic days, it was a big deal to finally get to eat your fill after 40 days of fasting. After the Lutheran Reformation in 1531, Swedish church goers weren’t really held to the Catholic standards of the holiday. I suppose old habits die slowly, as evident by how long it took to do away with the Third and Fourth days.
EGGS AND BUNNIES One of the most common things to eat at Easter were eggs – those marvelous little iconic heavyweights that are so universally accepted as a symbol of life, re-birth and fertility. As it happens, chickens naturally and by genetic disposition, take a break from producing as many eggs during winter. Egg production resumed in spring – about the same time as Lent. Since people were usually fasting then, the eggs were collected and stockpiled. By the time Easter rolled around, there was an abundance of them, and they became the central item on the table. There are lots of superstitions connected to the egg, and futures could be told by submerging egg yolks and whites into a glass of water. Breaking the eggshell into lots of small pieces so that it could not be used against you by trolls and witches was good practice, and it was said that the hen would lay as many eggs as there were shards by next Easter. One should bury and egg in each corner of the field to ensure a rich harvest. Dipping your fingers into the water used to boil your eggs would give you warts. And, having an uneven number of egg-eaters at the table would mean that you would never again eat eggs together again. And so on…
The eggs were often decorated or dyed. I’m not sure where the tradition of decorating the eggs comes from, but I know it was a useful way of identifying the eggs participating in the various games that centered on the egg. Pysanka – the Ukrainian art of decorating eggs goes back to pre-Christian times. They do it better than just about anyone else. Beautiful artform, indeed! I know I would certainly think twice before hurling one of the pysanka eggs down a hill!
One popular game is Äggpickning (Egg picking). Two people play against each other, eached armed with a hardboiled egg. They knock the top end of the eggs against each other until one of them cracks. Usually the one who cracked the other’s egg wins that egg, and then moves on to his or her next opponent. This game is very common in Simrishamn in southern Sweden, where people gather in the harbor at dawn for the grand tournament. In the end, after the final, the winner usually has a basket full of cracked eggs.
Äggrullning (or Egg rolling) is another popular diversion common in Northern Europe and Britain, where people gathered at the top of the Äggabacken (Egg Hill). There are several versions of this game; who could roll the longest, who could hit most other eggs (not unlike a game of marbles) and who could throw their egg the longest. In 1550’s Germany, one version had wealthy kids roll the eggs down to poor kids who caught them. As in Äggpickning, if you cracked someone else’s egg, you won it.
My kids’ favorite eggs are the paper ones – decorated with chicks and bunnies, and filled with sugary treats. Bunnies have their own place in spring time revelry, as the mammal that probably produces the most offspring, in a riot of abundant fecundity. Really, there is no denying that at the root of it all, Easter is all about sex and procreation. Even so, during the Middle Ages, it was widely believed that hares and rabbits were hermaphrodites, and could procreate without loss of virginity. So, the rabbit promptly became a symbol for the Virgin Mary, and was often depicted in medieval church paintings. The Ester Bunny originated with the Germans, and was a little like S:t Nick in that he determined whether kids had been good or not. The Easter Bunny was never really established in Sweden, nor was the Egg Hunt, which is another German tradition.
THE COLOR YELLOW Curiously absent from the Christian lithurgy, your guess is as good as mine as to its popularity around Easter. It is the color of the sun, egg yolks, daffodils and other early spring flowers, and baby chicks. Maybe it’s just that after a long winter, we are starved for bright, warm, cheery colors that break with the doldrums of snowy, overcast winter landscapes. Yeah, that’s probably it! Please let me know if you have a better idea… And have a wonderful Easter! Or, perhaps I should say “Happy Ishtar”!
For this post, I relied heavily on the student work of Sofie Loman, which I came across during one of my earlier searches on the subject. She had an extensive list of references which is copied below.
Bibeln: Gamla Testamentet, 1917 och Nya Testamentet , 1981
Bonnesen S: Gåsgalgarna i Ystad, ur Karolinska förbundets årsbok, 1931
Bringéus N-A: Årets festseder, 1976
Ejdestam J: Våra folkfester, 1971
Eskeröd A: Årets fester, 1970
Forsberg V: Majstång och julgran, 1972
Fredlund J: Stora boken om livet förr, 1981
Grubbström H: Fakta om julen, påsken och våra andra högtider, 1987
Hagberg L: Stora rovor och långt lin, ur Fataburen 1913
Hagberg L: Påskhögtiden, 1920
Kulturhistoriska museet i Lund: Fastlagen och påsken och däremellan kommer fastan, 1984
Liman I: Påskens ABC, 1973
Löfström I: Påsken i tro och tradition, 1983
Odenius O: Fastlagen, Ur Kulturhistoriskt lexikon från Nordisk medeltid, 1959
Schildt M: Trevlig helg, 1984
Schön E: Folktrons år, 1989
Stigsdotter M: Seder och bruk om våren, 1977
Topelius C: En årsrunda, 1989
Wedsberg M: Påskboken, 1991
Widding L: Svenska äventyr, 1995
In addition, I also used material from:
Stålsjö D: Svearikets Vagga
The sources of some of the photos have been credited where possible.