Saturday, April 04, 2015

Swedish Holidays - Påsk (Easter)

In a 2014 end-of-year poll conducted by Gallup International, 59% of the Swedes surveyed claimed to be “not a religious person” and 17% were “convinced atheists.” Compare that to the 33% and 6% of Americans surveyed who said the same thing. That’s a solid difference in claimed religious beliefs.

Of course, you wouldn’t know it if you looked at the public holidays, which give people a day off: the Epiphany, Good Friday (known as långfredagen in Swedish, the long Friday, it seems much more fitting considering the torture and whatnot), Easter Monday, the Ascension, All Saints Day, Christmas. You get the idea. Swedes love their religion as long as it gets them a day off. That’s especially true around Easter. Påsk. Life slows down a lot this time of year. Holy Thursday often ends up being a half-day, Good Friday is a red day, and Easter Monday is a red day. Suddenly, you’re staring at a four-and-a-half-day weekend. And if you happen to be a student you get a full week off from school. Easter vacation is a one-week reprieve. This year, most Swedish schools start Easter vacation next week: vecka 15. It’s a time to go skiing if there’s snow or to clean out the stereotypical little, red cottage if you’re rich enough to have one. The Norwegians like to head to their cottages to read mysteries. They’re a strange people.

It’s a big deal then, Easter, and like plenty of Swedish holidays, the eve of the big day is a big day. Julafton. Midsommarafton. Påskafton. It might not be religious in the sense that people quietly contemplate the suffering of Christ or in the sense that people actually attend church, but there are a whole lot of religious connotations that exist, are still celebrated, and are in fact an integral part of this secular (?) country. And then there are witches. But we’ll get to that.

There are, of course, the obvious Christian connections. Jesus ate his last supper, was betrayed, was crucified, and then was resurrected. That’s the reason for the season, if you will. But then there are the little things that pop up in Swedish celebrations of the holiday that nod to the Christian faith. Or the big ones like the recent cross-carrying procession through Stockholm.

For just a few SEK, you can buy a bunch of feather-adorned
birch branches to remind you of Christ's suffering.
Jesus would be so proud.
Birch branches, for example. Påskris. You can find these things for sale all over the place in the time leading up to Easter. They are exactly what they sound like—branches from a birch tree. Stripped. In 1600s Sweden, these branches were used to pretend-flog one another so as to remind people of Christ’s suffering. By the late-1800s, people in Stockholm and the surrounding areas were using them as decoration. Finally, by the 1930s, people throughout Sweden were decorating their homes with birch branches. Today, those branches are usually sold with colorful feathers on them. It lightens the mood a little bit. Just like those colorful eggs.

Eggs are a big part of Easter in Sweden. From the colorful eggs that were once given away as gifts to the eggs that get eaten during Easter (probably because it’s around this time that the hens start laying a bunch of eggs and you weren’t supposed to eat eggs during Lent). Then there are the giant cardboard Easter eggs that are filled with candy. And they aren’t just for kids. I was lucky enough to receive one my last Easter here through work. Even adults love candy. While some people have Easter egg hunts, the big shows of outdoor hunts aren’t quite as common as in the US—this year, the police were sent to the site of an Easter egg hunt because people were creeping around searching for the eggs. Like I said, not quite as common as in the US.

There’s even an Easter bunny. But it’s of German origin and, according to Nordiska museet, spread widely through the country with a little help from the candy industry. The US has to deal with the NRA and Big Tobacco. Sweden has Big Candy.

Easter food usually consists of eggs. And fish. Lots of eggs and lots of fish. Some people eat a meal that is similar to Christmas dinner including meatballs, sausage, and potatoes, but usually the ham is not included. Instead, the focus of the meal has shifted somewhat to herring and salmon.

But none of this is all that different than what you might experience in the US. Sure, it might be a bit surprising that so many of these religious traditions live on in such a supposedly secular country, but traditions change and meanings behind those traditions change as well. What might be surprising though are the witches. Witches come out in full force during Easter. They have places to be, namely Blåkulla, and things to do, namely Satan.

Come Holy Thursday, the day that Jesus was betrayed by Judas, the Devil decides to invite in all of Sweden’s witches to a party at Blåkulla. The witches manage to get to Blåkulla by flying on oven rakes and brooms and even a cow. To hinder the witches, people made sure that anything that could be used to fly to Blåkulla was hidden or put away. A little bit of spring-cleaning, if you will. Then a cross was painted on the doors of the barn or steel was placed on the threshold of the barn to make sure that the witches didn’t come and steal any milk. They have a habit of stealing milk. Just to be sure, people would head outside, start giant fires, and even shoot off whatever firearm they happened to have handy. Fire and guns scare witches, which is why Easter firecrackers can still be found today. Just in case.

That didn’t stop all of the witches, who still managed to kidnap some children and head over to the giant party that the Devil was hosting. Once there, the party atmosphere was enough to make your local priest blush. There was drinking and eating and sexing all sponsored by Satan himself.

Today there is less sexing and more eating. Especially candy. But that candy doesn’t come free. You’ve got to work for it with a little bit of dress-up. Swedes have been dressing up as witches and heading around scaring people in their creepy witch outfits for hundreds of years at this point. It is a bit reminiscent of Christmas-time mummering or Halloween. Today, instead of your creepy neighbor or the teenager down the street, it’s little kids that are running around dressed as cute little witches with freckles and rosy cheeks painted on their faces. They might be wearing a bonnet or an apron or dress. They sometimes run around with a basket or teakettle or coffee pot. That’s where they keep the candy they collect as they go door-to-door. And if they’re super industrious little children, their Easter letters. Traditionally, those Easter letters wish the recipient a Happy Easter, maybe include a little verse or two, and colorful drawings. The letters were supposed to be delivered so that the recipient didn’t know who the sender was. Today, if they are delivered at all, they are usually handed over in person.

There's still a hint of creepiness to these witches.
Blåkullaresenär på påskafton Vänersborg. Påskkärring.
By Victor Tornberg in 1936 via Vänersborgs museum.
There are mentions of dressing up as witches from the early 1800s, and by the early 1900s, this became pretty common throughout Sweden, although the exact day for witching depends on where in the country you live. In western Sweden you’ll probably see the witches out on Easter eve. In eastern Sweden they tend to be out on Holy Thursday.

I happen to live in eastern Sweden and as I was walking to meet a friend on Holy Thursday for some dinner, I saw two witches walking towards me. They were young witches, maybe four and six. They looked to be brother and sister. Their adult representative was trailing behind them. I’ll be honest; I was seconds away from asking the adult if I could take a picture. The kids were so damn cute. And they were witches! It was like a walking display of folklore. But, because I am a 31-year-old balding man, I decided that a question like that would be creepy and unwelcome. So I left them behind and instead tried to take a picture of them from the window of the restaurant. That’s totally not creepy, right?

Because I failed as a street life photographer, you’ll have to regale yourself with pictures from the @sweden account. Below you'll find a tweet from the Easter week's @sweden—a guy named Viktor who, as a small child, rocked the witch get-up. You may have to click on the twitter pic link to see the glory that is Swedish Easter witches and note that the account is updated every week with a new curator. You'll just have to trust me that this is Viktor:
And finally, since you made it this far in this incredibly long post, it's me! As a child witch. Luckily, my mother is a sentimental woman and has saved pictures of her three boys as children. Before we were all big and bearded. It's really gone downhill in terms of cuteness since this picture was taken about 25 years ago. So it goes.
That's me on your left, ready to charm the world with my witchy wiles. 
Welcome to Sweden. And the not-so-secular Swedish Easter traditions.

If you want to read more about Easter in Sweden (in Swedish), check out Påsk på Skansen and Nordiska museet’s Påsken, which is where I collected a lot of this information.


  1. Such a cute, tiny, witchy Hairy Swede! You should definitely wear påskkärring makeup more often!

    1. It's a little tougher with the beard, but who knows, maybe I'll give it a shot for Halloween next year.