Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Easter Witches

I have discovered a fascinating Swedish tradition centered around Easter: Easter witches.
On the Thursday before Easter (Påsk), Swedish children dress up like witches and go door-to-door hoping to get treats.

These witches don't look quite like our Halloween witches -- no peaked hats or black capes. Instead, these little witches look like Baba Yaga straight out of a Russian fairy tale, with headscarves, kerchiefs, aprons, and rosy cheeks.
How does a witch come to be associated with Easter, a holiday we Americans associate with the arrival of spring, renewal, birth, and Christ's resurrection? Bunnies, lambs, baby chicks and eggs, yes, but how do witches fit into all this?
According to the Luleå Tekniska Universitet website,
"As is often the case with major holy days, certain superstitions were attached to Easter. People believed that witches were especially active and their black magic especially powerful during this week."
On Maundy Thursday, Easter hags were thought to fly off on brooms to dance with the devil at a place called blåkulla (Blue Hill, a legendary meadow) until Saturday.

On their way home, there was always the danger that witches would get caught in people's chimneys. "To be really sure that the chimney was free from magical beings you had to burn nine different types of deciduous wood" all night Saturday. People also hid away their brooms and rakes in case witches tried to steal them for spare transportation.
"These grim superstitions have one much more cheerful legacy in modern times: On Maunday Thursday or Easter Eve Swedish girls and boys dress up as hags and pay visits to their neighbors.
"Some leave a small decorated card, an "Easter letter," hoping for a sweet or coin in return. The custom of making "Easter letters" is especially widespread in western Sweden, where it is also the custom to slip the letter into a person's mailbox or under his door without being seen. The identity of the sender is a secret."
All the adorable illustrations are old Easter letters. I wonder what a modern Easter letter looks like?
Here are some Swedish children dressed as Easter hags. Aren't they cute?


steviewren said...

A few years ago I found an old children's book all about this tradition. It has great black and white illustrations. The tradition seems weird to me...but those kids are sure cute. I'll stick with colored eggs and bunnies myself.

We always got new outfits for church when I was young. I did the same for my children.

Indie said...

My sister and I always got new dresses too.

For my kids, they discovered a basket of goodies by the front door and eggs filled with more goodies hidden around the yard along with all the eggs they had colored the day before. And there were parties to go to with more eggs to find.

Melanie said...

This is kind of similar to La Befana, from Italy.

Indie said...

Melanie, you are so right!!! I just googled La Befana. Besides looking just like these witches in the artwork, she is an excellent segue from Easter witches. According to Wikipedia, she delivers presents to children on Christmas. Once again, magical creatures entering homes through chimneys... like Santa (an elf). It was discovering old stories like these that motivated the Brothers Grimm way back when.

beachcomber said...

It's like Easter, Halloween and Valentines and May Day all shaken up and dumped into one day. Very interesting.

Like steviewren, we had new dresses and hats for Easter Sunday mass. Sometimes even gloves and new patent leather shoes - white, of course. Stylin'.

Indie said...

Hmm, makes me wonder what I'm going to wear to church tomorrow. All my dresses are so dark.