In southern Sweden Easter is a welcoming of spring whereas in northern Sweden it’s still winter. But throughout Sweden Påsk (pohsk) means even more time off than at Christmas since the Friday preceding Easter Sunday and the Monday after are both official holidays. In addition, many people only work a half day on Thursday so for most people it’s a lovely long weekend.
As in many countries eggs play a big role on Easter Sunday because they were not allowed during the 40 days of fasting during Lent. The first painted Easter eggs are recorded in southern Sweden during the 1700s. In many European countries egg decorating rose to a high art form. In Sweden it was typical to wrap eggs in birch leaves before cooking them to leave a subtle pattern on the shell. By the end of the 1700s glass and porcelain eggs arose and during the 1800s paper-mache eggs with peep holes. Far north they would often have to wait until May for the arrival of fresh eggs which meant eggs with candy could play a starring role. Today kids often paint easter eggs and instead of Easter baskets most children wake up to find a large egg filled with candy. They range from clear plastic eggs to various decorated cardboard eggs. The Easter bunny doesn’t play a big role in Sweden and is a relatively late arrival from Germany at the end of the 1800s. Mainly the Easter bunny is responsible for hiding eggs for an Easter hunt, if he does anything at all.
Daffodils, or påskliljor (Easter lilies), are the common flower for Easter in Sweden and yellow plays a big role in decorations due to its connection to eggs which symbolize life and the yellow chicks that emerge if the eggs are not destined for the dinner table. Some of the common Easter foods include pickled herring, janssons frestelse (a potato dish with anchovies and onions), salmon, and of course eggs. Today lamb is often served on Easter day but that is a modern occurence thanks to refrigeration and freezing techniques. Before these modern inventions lamb wasn’t available at Easter time in Sweden because they hadn’t been born yet. And although there is always the talk of Swedish aquavit (snaps) predominating the drinking portion of the meal, I would argue that more påskmust is consumed. I swear it’s the leftover stuff from the Christmas julmust that has just been returned to the factory and relabeled for Easter. It’s essentially a cross between coca-cola and Dr. Pepper. Count me out.
Two Swedish traditions that are entirely foreign to me are the påskris and påskkärringar. Påskris (also known as fastlagsris) are birch branches decorated with feathers wired to the ends. As far back as the 1600s birch branches were used to playfully whip family members in remembrance of Christ’s suffering. The feathers didn’t come into play until the mid 1800s and weren’t common throughout the country until the 1930s. Today they are omnipresent and you find them decorating homes as well as shops. If you buy the branches in advance of Easter and put them in a vase with water they should begin to leaf by the time Easter arrives. That said, I have yet to have any of my branches sprout green though I’ve faithfully stuck them in water every year. The most spectacular påskrisar I’ve seen were in Helsingborg this year. They had massive amounts of feathers wired to multiple pots of birch branches making for a rather stunning effect.
The other tradition that I didn’t grow up with is påskkärringar or häxor (Easter hags or witches). This stems from the witch hunts in Europe from the 15th -18th century when untold numbers of people were accused of and executed for being witches. There is a longstanding Swedish folklore that on Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Easter known as skärtorsdagen) all of the witches would fly to Blåkulla for an orgy with the devil that lasted until Easter Eve. It’s not entirely clear how that morphed into little kids dressing up like old hags and going door to door for candy or coins, but that’s where it ended up. And even though they are called Easter hags, of course those kids end up looking pretty darn cute.
Pictures of påskkärringar from http://nara.allehanda.se/
One of my favorite Easter treats from the U.S. are peeps and I miss them every year. They are a love ‘em or hate ‘em kind of thing and I am in the love ‘em camp. I have fond memories of the peeps in my Easter basket with all of the heads bitten off, courtesy of my big brother. Once I moved away from home he even mailed me some peeps with the heads bitten off for old time’s sake. Last year my mother-in-law found a Swedish equivalent and I was ecstatic (that is not an understatement). So this year I made it a point to visit the Swedish peeps purveyor, Chocolatte a chocolate/coffee shop in downtown Helsingborg. Not only did I find the peep equivalents I was looking for, but some candy eggs that would give Cadbury mini eggs (another one of my Easter favorites) a run for their money.
Although I wasn’t impressed by the marzipan chicks I tried (they were a bit dried out), the nougat eggs and Swedish peeps did not disappoint. If you are an American looking for a nostalgic Easter fix, I recommend a step into Chocolatte if you can’t get your hands on the real peeps and Cadbury mini eggs.
So that is a quick glimpse at Easter in Sweden bathed in candy, herring, painted eggs, Easter witches, påskmust, and feathers. Even though I initially found the feather decorations a bit odd, I’m now totally on board and look forward to seeing them each year. And I’m content to munch on some Swedish peeps and nougat eggs to remind me of Easter back home.