Today is called Long Friday in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’. It commemorates the long day and the long suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, according to Christian teachings. It is a public holiday, and for many years, everything was closed in Sweden making the day long and boring for many people. Now, most things are open, even the middle of a flaming, raging pandemic.
Good Friday is a day of cooking, shopping and going for walks. Some people attend church services. Tomorrow, Easter Saturday, is the normal day of celebration when Swedes gather to eat from a bulging smörgåsbord. Typical food includes variations of salmon, egg, herring and lamb. Dark Easter beer is consumed and snaps is knocked back.
In English, this day used to be called Long Friday also, but at some point in history it changed to Good Friday. Good in this context means Holy. According to the Daily Mash this is ‘still stupid. You don’t get much worse days than being flogged, nailed to a cross, then stabbed. And that includes your annual performance review. It’s like calling funerals ‘Happy Burying Nana Day’.
In the UK, Easter eggs are usually bought ready-made. The big egg is itself made of chocolate, and inside is a small bag of more chocolates. It is wrapped in colourful packaging, and marketed around a particular brand of chocolate such as Maltesers, or Buttons or Dairy Milk.
For me that was what an Easter egg liked like. Until I moved to Sweden. Here, Easter eggs look quite different. The Swedish egg is usually an inedible cardboard egg, emblazoned with colourful Easter motifs. It can also be made of tin or porcelain. So, the egg itself is also the packaging. Inside the egg, is pick ‘n’ mix, usually consisting of a few candied eggs and other well-chosen sweets such as cola bottles, sour dummies and fudge. This style of Easter egg was actually also popular in the UK around the reign of Queen Victoria.
This year, however, manufacturers of pick ‘n’ mix sweets have reported a huge decline in sales. This is probably due to the corona virus and people’s concern about hygiene.
Giving Easter eggs as gifts in Sweden became popular in the 1800’s and was facilitated by the paper-making industry. Although decorating eggs dates further back, to the 1600’s, when Swedes would paint eggs to celebrate the spring.
Whatever the type of egg the Easter bunny brings you this year, I hope you enjoy it!
There is an irony to the fact that we are socially distancing, quarantining and home working specifically during this week. In Swedish, this week is called ‘Stilla Veckan’ – which literally translates as ‘tranquil week’ or ’quiet week’.
‘Stilla Veckan’ is a term in the Swedish church calendar to describe the week leading up to Easter – the last week of Lent. In English, we call it Holy Week.
Every day in ‘Stilla Veckan’ has a name. Holy Saturday is called ’Påskafton’ in Swedish, which translates as Easter Eve. Do you know what the Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday leading up to Easter are called?
The Sunday before Easter is called ’Palmsöndag’ – Palm Sunday in English. According to scripture, it commemorates Jesus’ triumphant arrival into Jerusalem. The crowds threw palm branches in front of him as he approached.
The Monday before Easter is called Blå Måndag – Blue Monday. It can also be called ‘Svart Måndag’, (Black Monday), ’Bullmåndag’ (Bun Monday), ’Fläskmåndag’ (Pork Monday) and ’Korvmåndag’ (Sausage Monday). It is called a predictable Holy Monday in English.
The Tuesday before Easter is called ‘Vittisdagen’ (White Tuesday). This is called Holy Tuesday in English.
Both Blue Monday and White Tuesday were originally used to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Lent begins in Ash Wednesday. At some point in history, they were moved colloquially to describe the Monday and Tuesday before Easter instead. Blue Monday refers to the colour that church rooms were painted on this day. White Tuesday is an old name for Shrove Tuesday, Fettisdag in Swedish, and probably refers to the flour that was used to make the Lent buns.
The Wednesday before Easter is, unsurprisingly, called Holy Wednesday in English. However, in Swedish it had the fascinating name ‘Dymmelonsdag’. This literally translates as ‘Clapper Wednesday’. The clapper that this is referring to is a wooden clapper that was traditionally put inside the church bells on this day so that the chimes would have a more subdued sound during Easter weekend.
The Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. This translates as ‘Clean Thursday’ and refers to the ritual of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. In English, this day is called Maundy Thursday.
And finally, the Friday before Holy Saturday is called Good Friday in English. This is derived from an obsolete meaning of the word good as being holy. In Old English, this day was called Long Friday, which is the name that was adopted in Swedish – ‘Långfredag’.
With Easter approaching, Swedes start pimping their homes. Yellow table cloths, yellow curtains and yellow tulips are common, as is something called a ‘påskris’. Pronounced ‘poskrees’, this is a Swedish Easter tree.
The Easter tree is a bunch of twigs and sticks (usually birch) in a vase with brightly coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people also hang decorated eggs, colourful ribbons or festive chickens. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours’ gardens. It is a very popular decoration, probably because it brings colour at a time of the year when most flowers haven’t yet bloomed in Sweden.
The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena. In fact, all products of a society are. This is because they originate somewhere and, often, we have forgotten the origin but still maintain the product or behaviour.
What’s the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then?
Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.
Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.
But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. It dates from the 1600’s. Swedish people at this time were more pious, and used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with on Good Friday – to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.
So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?
The English word Easter has a mythical etymology. It originates from the Germanic goddess of fertility – Eostre. Prior to the 300’s, pagan festivities were held in her honour in the month of April. These festivities were slowly replaced by Christian traditions from the 400’s to celebrate the resurrection of Christ – and given the ‘recognisable’ name Easter.
But what about the Swedish word for Easter – Påsk? Where does that originate?
During the same period as Easter, the world’s Jews celebrate a holiday of Passover to mark their liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt and their freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. Passover commemorates the story of the Exodus as described in the ‘Book of Exodus’, in which the Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. The name of this celebration is ‘Pesach‘.
Originating in this word ‘pesach’ is the Aramaic word ‘paska‘. And from ‘paska’ comes the Swedish word ‘Påsk‘.
So, interestingly, the more secular country of Sweden actually has the most religious origin of the word Easter.
Today is ‘Maundy Thursday’ in English and in Swedish it has the unusual name of ‘Skärtorsdag’. The word ‘skär’ means ‘pink’. But does that make today Pink Thursday?Actually not. The word ‘skär’ has another meaning that might be more relevant – ‘clean’ – and it is a biblical reference.
If you know your bible stories, today being the day before Good Friday is the day when Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper, introduced communion, and was later betrayed by Judas, and condemned to death on the cross. Prior to the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And he washed them clean – a symbolic metaphor for purification and the washing away of sin.
So, today isn’t Pink Thursday – it’s Clean Thursday. In fact, in English ‘Maundy Thursday’ also relates to the same act in the bible – the act of ritual cleaning is known an The Maundy.
However, in Sweden, today isn’t that much about washing feet – it’s more about witchcraft! Today is celebrated by children dressing up as witches, rather like we do in the UK and USA on Halloween. Children go door to door in their outfits begging for sweets. Well, at least this is what I have heard. In the 20 years I have lived in Sweden, no witchy child has ever knocked on my door. Maybe that’s a city thing? Perhaps the tradition is more popular in the suburbs and the countryside?
But why do they dress at witches in the first place? Well, this tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that the Skärtorsdag was the night of the witches, where these wicked hags would climb onto their broomsticks and fly to a mountain called Blåkulle. It was a night of danger and evil, and Swedish people would bar their doors to their houses and barns and leave outside gifts that would make the witches’ journey easier – food, milk, clothes, broomsticks. Today, that translates into the Swedish version of trick or treating.
So if you celebrate by cleaning, or by dressing up as a witch or by eating candy – you’ll be kicking off your Easter the Swedish way!
Today it’s ‘Fat Tuesday’ in Sweden, known as Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras around the world.
While in the UK we eat pancakes (today is even called Pancake Day) and in Latin America they scoff down fried bread, Swedes celebrate by eating the traditional cream Lent bun – the ‘semla’. I’m also clearly going to indulge. In fact, my mouth is watering just writing this post.
The semla is a creamy bun filled with delicious almond paste. They were eaten traditionally in Sweden to commemorate the start of Lent and the great Fast, leading up to Easter. In the south of Sweden, they still refer to them as ‘fastlagsbullar’ – Shrovetide buns. Nowadays however, semlas are usually sold anytime between Christmas and Easter.
I just love them. I could eat a barrel load. But I’d end up looking like a barrel if I did. I love the taste of them, and the feeling of luxurious indulgence. I also love the knowledge that as you take a bite into a creamy semla, you are biting into over 500 years’ history of Scandinavian baking.
The word ‘semla’ comes from the Latin ‘simila’ which means fine flour and originally referred just to the bun without any filling. As long ago as the 1500’s, bakers started to hollow out the middle of the bun and fill it with cream and butter. As ingredients became more available, bakers started adding almond and cardemon and the type of semla that we know today developed towards the end of the 1800’s. After rationing of sugar and dairy products ceased at the end of WW2, the semla took off and became very popular.
Nowadays the semla trend has reached new heights. Every year bakers around the country try to launch new types of semla, with their own spin on it -for example, the semla wrap, the semla burger, the semla layer cake, the semla cocktail, the chocolate semla, the vanilla semla, the lactose-free, gluten-free vegan semla. This year, the gross-sounding fermented Baltic herring semla was revealed.
But I’m a traditionalist in this matter. Give me a round fluffy cardemon-scented wheat bun brimming over with whipped cream and almond paste.
In the UK, we celebrate ‘Days’ such as Christmas Day & Easter Day. But in Sweden, it is always the Eve ( ‘afton’) that is the big celebration time. There’s påskafton, Valborgsmässoafton, Midsommarafton, pingstafton, nyårsafton, trettondagsafton. Why is this? Surely it can’t just be to get an extra day’s holiday?
Well, actually it originates from a time before the mechanical clock. In that period, a new day began at sunset rather than at midnight as it does now. In the Medieval times there was an expression – ‘vid kväll ska dag leva’ – which means something like ‘in the evening, shall the day live.’ Skandinavians held onto this tradition even after clocks were invented, and this is why they celebrated their important days the evening before. Now the evenings have, for practicalities sake, become day time activities. That’s why Swedes celebrate on the ‘Afton’. Oh yeah, and for the extra day’s holiday.
In Sweden, they don’t only have Christmas trees, they also have Easter trees.
This Easter tree, known as ‘påskris’, is a handful of twigs and sticks (usually birch) installed in a vase with coloured feathers attached to the ends. People often hang painted eggs and other decorations such as chickens in their installation. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country at this time of year: outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, in gardens, in the middle of roundabouts.
The Easter tree is an interesting cultural phenomena – but where does it originate?
Wiping: Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the wiping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we sweep.
Witching: Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.
Whipping: But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different origin and symbolism. Swedish people, in the 1600’s, used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with them on Good Friday to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.
So, wiping, witching or whipping. Who would have thought the colourful Easter tree would have such a colourful history?
Today, the Thursday before Easter is called ‘Skärtorsdag’ in Swedish. As the word ‘skär’ translates as a shocking pink colour, many people joke that today is ‘pinkThursday’. But the word ‘skär’ in this case relates to something else – something far more biblical.
The word ‘skär’ is an early Nordic word meaning clean and pure. And here, we see a parallel to the English word for ‘Skärtorsdag’. In English, today is called ‘MaundyThursday’ and it relates to the religious rite known as ‘the maundy’ which involved the ritualistic cleaning of feet. According to Christian belief, today was the day that Jesus performed this act until the recipients had clean and pure feet. It also is the day of the infamous Last Supper.
However, in Sweden today, ‘Skärtorsdag’ is not celebrated in any great religious fashion but in a pagan manner. A old pagan belief in Sweden was that on this day witches would mount their broomsticks to fly away to the legendary mountain known as Blåkulla. At Blåkulla it was believed that the devil held his earthly court. There the witches celebrated their sabbath and danced with the devil.
In modern day Sweden, we see this reflected in the many children who dress up as witches. These kids paint Easter cards and walk around the neighbourhood knocking on doors to wish everybody a happy Easter. In exchange, they hope to receive Easter sweets.