Easter Witch

Easter Witch

One old Swedish Easter custom might remind many Americans more of Halloween than Easter. On Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday, Swedish schoolgirls dress up as witches and go door to door begging for sweets or coins. These smiling Swedish Easter witches charm rather than frighten their neighbors, however. The traditional costume requires a shiny copper kettle, a broomstick, and a black cat, though nowadays not every child comes up with all the customary gear. Some end up carrying their parents' coffee pots in lieu of a copper kettle. Prospective Easter witches usually transform their mothers' skirts, shawls, aprons, and kerchiefs into a costume. Rosy red cheeks, dabbed on with makeup, complete the look. Some Easter witches slide a decorated Easter letter under the door of each house they visit with the understanding that this seasonal greeting may prompt the inhabitants to offer them an Easter treat. In Sweden the Easter witch has become such a symbol of the holiday that little Easter witch dolls are sometimes used as centerpieces for dining room tables at this time of year.

In Finland children also dress up as Easter witches and visit their neighbors. Although this custom can be traced back to the nineteenth century in Finland, it became more widespread during the 1980s, when schools, daycare centers, and the media began to publicize and promote it. Some Finns have reacted negatively to the concept of children begging from door to door. Finnish Easter witches do offer something in return for the sweets and coins they hope to receive. In addition to reciting good luck poems, many also carry willow switches with which to whisk householders. This old Finnish Easter custom was believed to confer good health and well being.

Easter falls at a time of year associated with witches and their activities in northern European folklore. Old German, Austrian, and Scandinavian folk beliefs warned that witches from this part of the world gathered in Germany's Harz Mountains for a wild celebration on the evening of April 30. An old Czech folk custom called for the burning of bonfires on this same evening in the hopes of frightening off witches. Folk tradition dubbed this occasion Walpurgis Night, as it falls the evening before St. Walpurga's Day.

Old Swedish folk beliefs taught that witches were active during Holy Week, too. One such belief taught that witches gathered at Blåkulla, a mysterious location somewhere in Sweden, for a celebration of their own on Maundy Thursday. People hid their broomsticks and billygoats on this day, fearing that a witch in sudden need for transportation might steal them and, by means of a spell, fly away on them to Blåkulla.

Another old folk teaching, also found in Finland, warned that witches were especially active on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, the two days that Jesus Christ spent in the grave. People protected themselves from evil enchantments on these dangerous days by burning bonfires, painting crosses on their doors, hanging crossed pairs of scythes in their barns, shooting off firearms, and other activities thought to frighten away witches. Nowadays, neighborhood children, dressed up as Easter witches in their mothers' old clothes, are all that remains of these folk beliefs.

Further Reading

Downman, Lorna, Paul Britten Austin, and Anthony Baird. Round the Swedish Year. Stockholm, Sweden: Bokförlaget Fabel, 1961. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Lee, Tan Chung. Festivals of the World: Finland. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1998.

Web Site

"Finnish Easter Traditions," an article by Sirpa Karjalainen, Assistant, Department of Ethnology at the University of Helsinki, posted on the Virtual Finland website:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
References in periodicals archive ?
She wanted to dress like an Easter witch (a legendary Swedish icon) on a broomstick.
In Sweden children dress up as Easter witches wearing long skirts, colorful headscarves and painted red cheeks, and go from home to home in their neighborhoods trading paintings and drawings in the hope of receiving sweets.
Dressed up in long, colorful skirts, cheeks colored with red circles and noses speckled with dotted freckles, with scarves and shawls covering their heads and shoulders, they "ride" on their mothers' brooms, carrying their cards and copper coffee pots, portraying Easter Witches and greeting their neighbors with a "Happy Easter" drawing.