Easter in Sweden is generally not so much a religious holiday as it is a reason for decorating our homes, offices and shops with the bright colors of spring in the form of Easter trees or Påskris.
Everywhere you go there are vases containing a handful of birch twigs decorated with colored feathers and dangling with painted eggs or other poultry-related decorations.
But where does this tradition stem from? Well, the Påskris is associated with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and the palm leaves that were laid before him.
Going back to the 1600’s, Swedish people used twigs to beat each other on Good Friday as a symbolic reminder of Jesus’ suffering.
I must say that I much prefer the modern symbolic interpretation, which is the anticipation of the coming of spring and nature’s impending rebirth.
Certainly, the brightly colored twigs around Easter cannot but lift the spirit and make you believe in the coming of brighter days after the long, dark winter months.
That brings me to another peculiar tradition. The Thursday before Easter is called Skärtorsdag.
In the Roman-catholic tradition, it is known as a day of purification, commemorating the foot washing and Last Supper of Jesus.
This was also the day when Jesus was betrayed by Judas and condemned to death.
The belief was that the moment Jesus was betrayed, all the evil spirits were let loose upon the earth. Skär is an Old Norse word meaning clean or sheer, with the modern-day interpretation however, skär means pink.
Consequently, this day is then known as Clean (or Pink) Thursday. And there is just about where the connection to the catholic tradition ends.
For up here in the deep, dark North, this is a day of pure debauchery. The belief was that this night belonged to witches, that it was the night when they all gathered, mounted their broomsticks and flew off to Blåkulla (Blockula).
This was a place one could only reach by magical flight and the witches, merrily cackling, flew there for the sole purpose of celebrating their Sabbath, dancing around fires, eating lavishly and nakedly cavorting with Devil.
Understandably, among the general population this was a night when pure evil abounded and this warranted all sorts of precautions such as hiding all the broomsticks, barricading all doors and lighting Easter fires to ward off the witches as they flew over house and hearth.
The story does not tell exactly how this tradition of evil and depravity was transformed into the modern celebration of Skärtorsdag but one connection remains.
Today, this is the day when all the children paint their faces, dress up as mini Easter witches (or Påskkärring) and go around the neighborhood knocking on doors, handing out handmade cards, wishing everyone Happy Easter and hoping for candy in return for their painstakingly painted cards.
These modern versions of witches are cute to behold and I normally look upon them with a benevolent smile.
But just to be on the safe side, I will make sure that I have a lot of candy at hand when the Påskkärring comes knocking on my door…
Evelyn Malzani, Stockholm