Sweden, Easter and Holy Week in

Sweden, Easter and Holy Week in

Swedes associate Easter time with the return of the sun and the coming of spring. They celebrate Easter by filling vases with budding birch twigs, sometimes decorated with colored feathers. In the past people whisked each other with these birch twigs on Good Friday, some say in remembrance of the whipping endured by Jesus before his crucifixion (for more on crucifixion, see also Cross). Nowadays people simply hope that the birch buds blossom in time to make a pretty display for Easter. The Swedish phrase for "Happy Easter" is glad Påsk.

Holy Week

In the past Swedes treated Holy Week as a sad, solemn time. No weddings or christenings took place during this week and many businesses and places of entertainment closed on Good Friday. These customs have begun to break down in recent years.

Palm Sunday

Although the palm branch is the traditional symbol for Palm Sunday, Swedes make do with willow branches, since few palms grow as far north as Sweden. Many Swedes display these willow branches in their homes and offices.

Holy Wednesday

An old custom associated with Holy Wednesday encouraged people to play a certain kind of practical joke on one another. They attempted to attach a silly or unpleasant object to a person's clothing without the person noticing. If the person walked around with the object all day before becoming aware of it, then the joke was a success (for more on Holy Wednesday, see Spy Wednesday).

Maundy Thursday

Swedish folklore taught that witches were especially active during Holy Week, and above all on Maundy Thursday. On this day they journeyed to a place called Blåkulla for a private celebration of their own (see also Walpurgis Night). 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. Witches transformed ordinary brooms into flying brooms by wiping them with a magical ointment. One recipe for flying ointment called for metal shavings taken from church bells. Frightening folktales whispered that gangs of witches gathered in bell towers during Holy Week to harvest this magic ingredient.

These now-extinct folk beliefs left behind an unusual children's custom. In Sweden girls go door-to-door on Maundy Thursday dressed as witches. These charming Easter witches bestow Easter greetings and hope in exchange to receive a sweet of some kind. In some places this custom takes place on Holy Saturday.

Other folk beliefs associated with Maundy Thursday include the notion that a woman who spun thread on this day would be sure to endure a painful childbirth and the belief that drawing water from a well about an hour before dawn could protect one from sunburn during the coming year. Later in the day many Swedes ate green soup, made from soup stock and green vegetables (for more on this custom, see Maundy Thursday).

Good Friday

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 (see also Finland, Easter and Holy Week in). 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 are all that remains of these folk beliefs. In northern Sweden boys once tormented girls on Good Friday by chasing them and whipping them with birch twigs. They stopped when the girls offered them a drink. On Easter Sunday and Monday the tables turned and girls pursued and slapped boys with birch twigs.

Swedes still enjoy traditional Good Friday foods. These include beer soup, green peas, and fried salt herring.

Holy Saturday

Swedes begin to eat their Easter eggs on the evening of Holy Saturday. Although the eggs may be decorated, the designs usually aren't as elaborate as those found in other European countries (for more on these elaborate designs, see Easter Eggs).

Easter Sunday

In past times some Swedes hesitated before lighting a fire in their fireplaces on Easter Sunday. Folklore taught that witches often got caught in chimneys on their way home from Blåkulla, and few people wanted to face a singed and angry witch on Easter morning. The only way to make absolutely certain that your chimney did not have some kind of supernatural creature lurking within it on Easter morning was to burn wood from nine different kinds of trees. According to some writers, the Easter bonfires held in western Sweden on this day are another remnant of these old, Swedish beliefs about witches (see also Easter Fires).

Further Reading

Downman, Lorna, Paul Britten Austin, and Anthony Baird. Round the Swed- ish Year. Stockholm, Sweden: Bokförlaget Fabel, 1961. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971.

Web Site

An article entitled "Påsk - Easter," posted by Sweden's Lulea University at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002