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The Easter Witches

As a nod to my Scandinavian DNA, particularly related to Sweden and Denmark, here is a post about an unusual Easter tradition.

A Swedish Easter postcard

Unlike many other countries, Easter in Sweden is a mostly secular holiday. Superstition and witchcraft were traditionally part of the customs of Swedish Easter and are still loosely followed today.

Hundreds of years ago, people believed witches flew on their broomsticks to a place called Blåkulla on the day before Good Friday, then returned on Easter Eve. Each region of Sweden had its own customs for protecting itself from the witches’ spells, like people lighting bonfires, shooting firearms into the sky, and drawing crosses on their front doors.  

The idea of the Easter witch goes back to around the sixteenth century, when a fear of witches as agents of Satan arrived in Sweden. In witch hunts of the 1660s and 1670s, several thousand people were tried for allegedly making pacts with the devil. A robust folklore around witches had already taken root as early as the 1400s.

The story of Easter witches originates from the first Maundy Thursday when Judas betrayed Jesus. It was believed that on this day, evil was released into the world and Satan would break all imprisoned witches out of jail. They would then fly to Blåkulla, an island where the Devil would welcome them to his court and hold a Witches' Sabbath. The means of transportation could be brooms, poles, cows, or even people, as long as they were greased with ointment stored in horns provided by the devil himself. In Blåkulla, the ordinary world reversed: witches sat around a table facing outward, old people became young, and women took men's roles. Folklore held that the chaos of Blåkulla blurred into our world during the period between Maundy Thursday and Holy Saturday. As a result, local jails received extra fortification on Maundy Thursday. Broomsticks were also kept out of sight to deprive any would-be visitors a means by which they could reach Blåkulla.

The belief in Blåkulla survived for centuries. In the mid-nineteenth century, Swedish Easter was many things: a sacred Christian holiday, a festive work-free day celebrated with pranks, and a time of real fear of witches. People lit bonfires and painted tar crosses on their barn doors to ward off evil. By that time, many people across western Sweden had also begun dressing up as witches at Easter.

By the 1800s, teenagers and young adults were participating in the Easter witch tradition. Most of their costumes invoked old peasant women with long skirts and kerchiefs made of old rags. Participants painted their faces or wore cloth or paper masks, often with hair and eyebrows made of moss. Some carried brooms, horns, or coffee pots symbolizing the feasts of Blåkulla. Easter witches also often cross-dressed, further reinforcing the idea that witches turned the world upside down during the period between Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Dressed as Easter witches (påskkärringar) and Easter trolls (påsktroll), they traveled around town, sometimes playing tricks in an effort to convince people that real witches were roaming the land. That might mean knocking over wagons, riding other people’s horses and leaving them sweaty and tired from witches riding them to the Sabbath, or climbing onto roofs and pouring ash down chimneys. They might also stop at houses, begging for something to eat or for a drink of schnapps.

Often, the masked witches and trolls anonymously delivered "Easter letters," sometimes by throwing them at a house along with a piece of wood and fleeing before they could be caught. The letters usually held a painting of a witch and often a verse inviting the reader to join the witches' Sabbath. The verses might simply be playful, or they might contain an insult to a recipient believed to have done something wrong.

The Easter witch tradition still survives today, in a very different form. The tradition has changed to "cuter" costumes for mostly younger children rather than the frightening costumes of earlier times. Both boys and girls wear the traditional costume of oversized skirts and shawls and painting freckles and bright red cheeks on their face. Some boys instead chose to dress up in their best and blackest suit, a large fake moustache and any old top hat laying around the attic. These are called Påskgubbar (Easter Old Men). Groups of children dress up and visit neighbors or relatives, singing songs or giving out drawings in exchange for sweets or money and wish all a "Glad Påsk" (Happy Easter).


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