The first hints I had of Easter were random people carrying sticks. There seemed nothing special about the sticks, other than the fact that people had evidently spent some time gathering them or buying them from florists. I was even tempted to break all social conventions and ask someone, but shyness held me back. What was so important about sticks, I wondered, and should I be getting them myself? I asked other expats who suggested it had something to do with regrowth, and pointed out that if they had buds perhaps they would bloom. I was a little bit skeptical about the enjoyment you could get from watching buds slowly expand, and felt sure there must be another reason, no doubt related to traditions that are mostly forgotten.
When I did some research and found out a possible theory, I wasn’t especially surprised that it had been swept under the carpet. Back in the 1800s people used to collect sticks for their children who would then whip themselves in memory of Jesus’ suffering.
I would much rather watch buds grow.
The next sign was with a flock of witches on a main street in the city. They ranged from adults to children, happily showing off their painted red cheeks and freckles, and adorned in coloured shawls and striped stockings. There were even a few brooms swinging around in the air, though no one seemed to be airborne yet. No one seemed to bat an eye at this open display of witchery and indeed it increased over the next few days. A group of older women were seen drinking in a pub, unmolested by mobs, but a majority of the witches were children skipping about town, asking for lollies. You may well ask why, in this day and age and in a country that though technically secular is nominally Christian, there are so many witches running about before Easter?
You would not be alone in wondering. Other expats shrugged and said it was a ‘Sweden thing’. Even Swedes answered me with a blank look and a variation of ‘Uh, we’ve always done that, I don’t know. It is odd isn’t it?’
So naturally I took to the internet to solve the mystery. Easter hags, or ‘påskkärringar’ have their origins in the 1600s, when it was believed witches flew on their brooms to Blåkulla to make merry and cavort and do all of the things people would expect witches to do. Somehow this has translated over the centuries to a tradition of children dressing up as witches and wandering the neighbourhood asking for treats. It is all a little bit Halloween, except for the old style costumes that seem more like village women of the past crossed with Pippi Longstocking than costume shop items.
There were also witches in shop windows, statues and figurines this time, grinning on their brooms, apparently daring people to take advantage of the Easter sales.
The witches weren’t the only decorations enticing people to enter and spend however. Trees, bushes and sticks across the country that were just minding their own business were festooned with brightly coloured feathers. They were hung outside of shops fluttering in the wind, sitting in front yards and in vases in apartments. All those sticks that had been budding away were now decorated, sometimes also with painted eggs and animal figurines. These eggs were often painted by children, as I remember doing years ago. Though a globe is a hard surface for a young artist, I think I created a few nice examples with water colours, crayons and dyes. We then ate them on Easter day, the pretty bits of shell flaking away to be swept up later.
Finally, did you think that in all this traditional symbolism that the Swedes have forgotten the most memorable part of Easter (for children at least)?
While in Australia we’re nearly submerged in avalanches of Easter eggs, rabbits and bilbies when we enter a supermarket, the people of Sweden have found another use for eggs. The tradition here is to buy an empty egg, in card board or tin, and fill it with candy. This is what my partner and I have done for the last two Easters, reusing the eggs and filling them with piles of candy for the help-yourself shelves at the shops. It’s amazing how much you can fit inside them, and conversely how quickly my partner can empty his.
So that’s Easter here in Sweden. Of course I missed out the parts about staying at country houses and feasts with families and eating epic amounts of fish (every day ending in g is fish day in Sweden), as that part has passed me by, but this should serve at least as an expats experience of the Easter season. Or rather, Påsk. Interestingly rather than reference the ancient of Spring, this word derives from the ancient name for the Jewish Passover. Which seems to me, with all the pagan traditions, witches, feathers and symbols of rebirth to demonstrate quite neatly how much traditions have intertwined over time, and perhaps how impossible it is to untangle them, even if we wanted to.