Finland, Easter and Holy Week in

Finland, Easter and Holy Week in

In Finland Holy Week is known as "Silent Week." This name comes from the time when Finland was a predominantly Roman Catholic country and followed an old Roman Catholic custom of silencing all church bells during this week. Folk custom added its own restraints, frowning on all forms of noise, including work-related noise and even laughter during these seven days.

Palm Sunday

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, called "Willowswitch Sunday" in eastern Finland. This name refers to the custom of whisking friends and neighbors with willow branches. In past times children used to go house to house on the Saturday before Palm Sunday carrying decorated willow switches and offering to whisk housewives. As they did they chanted, "Switching, switching, switches go, wishing freshness and health for the year." Indeed folklorists suspect that this custom originated in the belief that this whisking conferred health and well-being. The following day the children applied their switches to unmarried girls. On Easter Sunday the children returned to the homes they had previously visited to receive eggs, sweets, or a coin in return for their switching services. During the twentieth century this custom spread all over Finland.

Those who attend Orthodox churches on Palm Sunday may bring blessed willow branches home with them. An old folk tradition recommended using them to sprinkle water on one's cattle, so drawing good luck to the animals. In western Finland children once dug willow or birch twigs out of snowdrifts and stuck them in vases at home. Folklore taught that when these twigs sprouted the forest trees would begin to bud. Old formulas also taught how to use Palm Sunday weather to predict the size of the harvest. According to folk belief, when farmers saw good weather on Palm Sunday they could expect a fine barley harvest.

Maundy Thursday

Another clump of superstition and custom attached itself to Maundy Thursday. According to one belief, the weather on this day foretold the weather to come over the next forty days. In some places people once called Maundy Thursday "Tail Thursday," as farm lore advised that this was a good day to trim the cow's tail. People prepared "tail soup" on this day as well. In spite of its name, this soup is made from barley rather than a cow's tail. In Savo Province people called Maundy Thursday "Kiira Thursday," meaning "Evil Spirit Thursday." This name came from the old folk custom of driving evil spirits away from the homestead on this day. One method of scaring them off consisted of dragging or pulling a container of burning tar around the property while chanting a command that the Kiira depart. Some people walked about their land striking a birch basket with an alder switch, or swinging a cow bell rather than dragging a burning tar basket.

Good Friday

Finns call Good Friday "Long Friday." Good Friday superstitions once included the belief that the day was ruled by evil spirits. This made it an appropriate day to buy magical goods designed to ward off evil influences. Youngsters may have feared the day for another reason. In past times parents spanked children on Good Friday to remind them of Jesus'suffering. A host of old folk customs reflect the solemn honor past generations of Finns accorded to this day. For instance, these customs forbade sweeping floors, spinning thread, visiting, and lighting cooking fires. Therefore people made meals out of cold leftover food on this day, customarily eating only after sunset. Proper behavior consisted of staying home and reading the Bible, attending church services, and engaging in other sedate activities. Dark clothing was considered appropriate on this somber holy day. Especially religious people even frowned on laughter, which they felt was out of keeping with this holiday memorializing Jesus' agony on the cross. In more recent times laws and decrees concerning Good Friday have restricted the operation of business establishments that offer food and entertainment to the public. These laws were relaxed in the 1990s.

Witches and Trolls

According to old folk beliefs, witches and trolls were especially active between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the days when Jesus Christ lay in the grave. Indeed the witch became such a common theme of the holiday that her image could be found on Finnish Easter cards. In past times 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. Today all that remains of these beliefs are the Easter witches, neighborhood children dressed as witches who go door to door asking for Easter treats. In Finland this custom dates back to the nineteenth century, but media campaigns in the 1980s greatly boosted its popularity.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday once saw the blaze of many Easter eve bonfires in the plains of Osterbotten (see also Easter Fires). Presumably these fires frightened away lurking trolls, who otherwise would have taken advantage of the darkness to harm their neighbor's livestock or "steal" their prosperity (for more on Easter season fires, see Walpurgis Night).

Easter Sunday

Weeks before Easter Finnish children sow rye grass seeds in pots and place them along the windowsill. The sprouting grass serves as a sign of spring, and therefore, an appropriate Easter decoration. Finns also enjoy decorating with flowers, especially tulips, lilies, and daffodils. In past times, when slower modes of transportation did not permit fresh flowers to be flown in from the European continent, people often made floral decorations out of colored tissue paper and dyed feathers. Images of baby chicks, dyed eggs, and rabbits also appear in Finnish Easter decorations.

In past times Easter Sunday brought children welcome relief from the restrictions of Silent Week. Children played, visited friends, and walked about ringing cowbells or playing musical instruments. Parents set up swings and see-saws to further their enjoyment of the day. These activities continued on Easter Monday.

Easter egg hunts are a relatively new children's pastime. The Finns began celebrating Easter with dyed eggs in the nineteenth century, an era when increasing numbers of Finns began to raise poultry. They adopted the idea of Easter eggs from their Russian and central European neighbors. Although Easter eggs have established themselves in Finland, the Easter Bunny has achieved far less success and is known only in a few parts of the country.

Like many other Europeans, the Finns once cherished a folk belief that the sun dances for joy on Easter morning (see also Easter Sun). Devout Finns used to gather at lookout points before sunrise to catch a glimpse of the sun shimmering over the horizon (see also Sunrise Service).

In olden times food was scarce around Easter time, falling as it does in the early spring when snow is still on the ground in Finland. Only the well-to-do could be assured of an ample Easter feast. This state of affairs inspired two Easter-related sayings. One declared, "On All Saints'Day for all, on Christmas for most, but on Easter for the 'headhouse'," meaning that food was plentiful around All Saints' Day in the autumn, still available at Christmas in the early winter, but running low at Easter time. Another saying, "He has cheeks like an Easter saint," was inspired by the pale skin and sunken cheeks resulting from the dwindling food supplies in early spring. One food that did appear on many Finns' tables during Lent was mämmi, a dark brown cereal dish made from sweetened rye malt and water. Mämmi cooks for a long time in a low-heat oven. In past times mämmi was considered a Lenten dish. These days, however, it appears in bakery windows shortly after Christmas. Moreover, today people enhance its flavor with cream and sugar.

Further Reading

Lee, Tan Chung. Festivals of the World: Finland. Milwaukee, WI: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 1998. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971.

Web Site

"Finnish Easter Traditions," an article by Sirpa Karjalainen, Assistant, Department of Ethnology at the University of Helsinki, posted on the Virtual Finland web site:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002