From dressing up as witches to burning effigies, the world holds many more Easter traditions than just dyeing eggs.
In Sweden and parts of Finland, a mini-Halloween takes place on either the Thursday or Saturday before Easter. Little girls dress up in rags and old clothes, too-big skirts and shawls and go door to door looking for treats.
Swedish Easter traditions bear more than a passing resemblance to American Halloween.
The tradition is said to come from the old belief that witches would fly to a German mountain the Thursday before Easter to cavort with Satan. On their way back, Swedes would light fires to scare them away, a practice honored today by the bonfires and fireworks across the land in the days leading up to Sunday.
In Swedish folk tradition, Skärtorsdagen was also believed to be the day when witches flew off on broomsticks to the legendary island of Blåkulla to feast and dance with the Devil. The reasoning behind this belief was that this was the day that Judas betrayed Jesus, an act that set loose all the evil forces in the world.
Finnish Easter traditions mix religious references with customs related to the long-awaited arrival of spring. If you answer the door on the Sunday before Easter, you may be confronted by endearing little witches offering to bless your home in return for treats.
In the most popular family tradition, young children (especially girls) dress up as Easter witches, donning colourful old clothes and painting freckles on their faces. “The little witches then go from door to door, bringing willow twigs decorated with colourful feathers and crepe paper as blessings to drive away evil spirits, in return for treats.
Many Finnish householders keep a basket of small chocolate Easter eggs ready by the door to pay off the marauding witches. Other families reward them with sweets or small change, or keep their front doors closed.
In many western Finnish villages, bonfires are still lit to drive away evil spirits on the evening of Easter Saturday.
Spring traditions always entail cleaning and blessing: the house, the body, the fields. The balance between winter ending and the rush of summer planting is maintained through the old traditions surrounding the broom and the switch. Brooms help us sweep winter out of the house and give the winter witches a vehicle to leave. Switches made from pussy willows and branches of colorful feathers let us sweep the energy of winter away!
The Burning of the Judas
Although Easter is a time of joyous celebration, in some places it’s a violent celebration. Take the tradition known as the Burning of the Judas. Common in several Latin American nations and in some parts of Greece, the practice involves stringing up an effigy representing the Apostle that betrayed Jesus and either burning it or exploding it from within with fireworks.
On Maundy Thursday before Good Friday the ‘Dance of Death’ celebration takes place at night on the streets of Verges near Barcelona. The scary dance is performed by men dressed as skeletons and represents the judgement of the soul after death. Spooky!
The “Easter Weirdness Festival, carries on in Florence where locals celebrate the day by exploding a cart. Yes, you read that right, they pack fireworks on a cart which is then led all around the city right up to the Duomo where the Archbishop of Florence then set it to fire with a fuse.
A Caribbean woman reflects….
Every Good Friday morning when she was a child, her mother or one of her uncles would break an egg into a glass bowl or a glass filled with water. Then they would place that bowl or glass out in the yard, leaving it in the sun until noon. Once the time came, everyone in the family would be gathered and they’d all go and see what the egg had “predicted.” It was believed that during the time the egg was left in the sun, it was forming an image. This image would be symbolic of an impending occurrence in the family. For example: if the egg showed what looked to be a fetus, a relative would soon get pregnant; an image of a ring meant someone was going to get married; a ship was interpreted as someone embarking on a trip/traveling and a coffin indicated death.
The idea of the Easter bunny giving candies and eggs is said to have originated in Germany during the Middle Ages, with the first written mention of this tradition dating back to the 16th century. Dutch settlers in Pennsylvania brought the bunny to the United States in the 1700s.
While it’s difficult to track the first Easter Bunny sighting, many believe the legend immigrated to the United States in the 18th century when Protestant Germans brought the culture with them. Their children were told tales of the “Osterhase” a giant hare that looked down over children, determining if they were good or bad. If they were good, the hare left them gifts of colored eggs in their bonnets. Children often left carrots hidden in the grass to lure the hare to the yard, which could lend itself to the current practice of hiding colored eggs in the grass.