Today, for many Swedes, Easter is just an extended weekend during which
they have a chance to meet spring head on with lots of daffodils, birch
twigs and good food. Historically this was a time of great religious significance
and until a generation or so back, the Easter week, starting with Palm
Sunday, had an air of solemnity about it. Weddings and christenings were
not considered appropriate during this week and it was not too long ago
that adults dressed in black and spent their time mostly in church or
in devotion on Good Friday. All places of entertainment including cinemas
remained closed. It was considered highly unsuitable to pay anybody a
visit. On this day it was forbidden to touch a needle or a pair of scissors
or steel in any form so as not to violate the memory of Christ’s suffering.
The natural explanation for why eggs became such an important part of an Easter meal would be that after forty days of fasting, during which no eggs were allowed in meals, it was a special treat to indulge in eggs without any restrictions. Another reason could be that the supply of eggs is more plentiful in the spring.
Eggs were not only consumed, they were also painted to fight off bad spirits, a custom that has lived on to this day.
In medieval times it was customary to bring eggs and other food items to church to have them blessed by the priest. Another tradition connected with eggs took place in Skåne where kids rolled eggs down the sandy dunes along the coast to watch them collide with each other and spill all over the slope. The big sea wall north of Kivik is still called Äggabackarna or the egg hills.
In certain parts of Sweden the custom of äggapickning was observed. People gathered on Easter morning with hardboiled eggs in their pockets. Two players stood opposite each other, one holding his egg still and the other using his for attack. There were strict rules - end to end, never the sides. The winner was the one whose egg remained unbroken after the assault.
The salmon consumed on Good Friday has a religious significance. Long after the Reformation, Swedes kept this day as a fast, and accordingly a meatless day. In olden days people ate really salty herring without drinking anything with it to remember Christ’s suffering.
The custom of eating lamb comes from the Bible story of the Passover first celebrated by the Israelites in Egypt, which gave birth to the tradition of eating paschal lamb in the Mediterranean countries from where the custom has been adopted by Swedes.
An ancient grisly aspect of Easter celebrations has developed into a fun thing for children. Little girls with painted faces, wearing head scarves and long skirts, go from door to door with a coffee pot which they expect to get filled with small change or candy. Known as påskkärringar - Easter witches or hags - their origins are to be found in the old superstition that Maundy Thursday was the time when witches stole household brooms and flew to dance and consort with the devil at a feast hosted by him on “Blue Mountain”, a fictitious mountain, possibly in present-day Iceland. There were witch hunts that developed from this superstition and as late as in the 18th century, women denounced as witches could still face capital punishment. The last trial of a woman for witchcraft in Sweden took place as late as in 1720. All doors and windows were kept closed on Maundy Thursday and the dampers of the fireplaces were firmly shut. Thresholds and door jams were marked with the sign of the cross in tar to keep the witches at bay.
The belief in witchcraft is the basis of another Easter tradition, especially in western Sweden where firecrackers are let off on Easter night and great bonfires are lit. Firecrackers and fires were considered to be a proven method to keep witches at bay.
© Swedish Press from April 2004 issue