Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Easter ~ Mostly What Comes Before

Theme ~ Swedish Rhapsody

When I sat down to write this post, I intended it to be about Easter traditions in Sweden during my childhood. After I read the post, I realized that I had written, for the most part, about the rich traditions that precede the holiday. 
Carnivals and parties before lent, as well as fasting during lent, take place in Christian countries all around the world and I found myself describing the Swedish version of these traditions. Looking back on what I wrote, I decided that what comes before Easter may just be more interesting than the eggs and rabbits of Easter Sunday. I am not forgetting the meaning of Easter, of Good Friday and Easter Sunday here, I just want to share our Swedish traditions.
In olden days, it was difficult to persuade the people of the North to fast during Lent. I can understand it because there is a such need for meat, for protein, and lots of food in cold weather.  They made up for it in the days leading up to Lent (fastan in Swedish) where the days immediately before lent were days of feasting, called fastlagen. I wondered if there was some sort of carnival during these feasting days and looked it up. While there was nothing resembling Mardi Gras,  dancing, practical jokes, and so on were common.
In Sweden, it is custom to eat a large bun, called semla, on the first Tuesday in Lent, called Fettisdagen, and every Tuesday thereafter. This bun is really special. It is large, round, with part of the middle scooped out and filled with marzipan. Then the top of the bun is closed on this wonderful middle. I my home, we ate the semla in a soup plate with hot milk. It is practically impossible to describe what this is and how wonderful it tastes. Not very healthy, perhaps, but we ate one every Tuesday during Lent.

This is a semla from the Internet. (I don't remember the cream that seems to overflow from my childhood's semlor.)

Paskris is another tradition, this one quite lovely. Ris is Swedish for a bare tree branch and during lent brightly colored feathers are attached to these bare branches. There's an open market in the center of Stockholm and I have vivid memories of how pretty it looked when all these bouquets of paskris were displayed. It was very cheerful toward the end of a long and dark winter to bring these branches with their brightly colored feathers into your home.

Ash Wednesday was a day of repentance, a day for going to church in Sweden. Thursday before Easter, called skaertorsdag, Maundy Thursday, was the day when people were considered cleansed. It was also a day to be very careful because witches were thought to be on the move. Beginning their travels to Blakulla mountain where the Devil himself was thought to hold a gathering. 

Witches were seen riding through the sky on their broomsticks, with their black cats, and other paraphernalia. In the middle ages, farmers would paint crosses on their doors, place tar on their doorsteps, and do everything in their power to protect themselves. And, yes, in those days, women were persecuted in Sweden too, tortured and executed for being witches.
During my childhood, children dressed up as witches, placed an old coffee pot on a broomstick and rode around the neighborhood asking for candy. I guess there must have been a threat also, but I don't remember. Maybe give us some candy or we will put a witches spell on you. This was sort of the Swedish version of Trick or Treat.
Good Friday in Sweden, in those days, was a very quiet day. All shops and entertainments were closed and people stayed at home with their families. 
Strangely, I don't remember much about Easter itself. I do remember getting very large and very pretty Easter eggs, made of hard paper covered with pretty material. These eggs were filled with chocolates and candies. I'm sure we ate real eggs and maybe even painted some. But that I don't remember. What I do remember though, is a dish called strommingslada, made with Baltic herring that my friend, Christina, made when I visited Sweden during Easter 2001. I believe that was a traditional Easter dish in her family and a tradition that she carried forward.
So be careful today and if you look up this evening, you may see someone on a broomstick riding in the sky on her way to Blakulla.

Happy Easter Everyone!


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