While American consumer culture, chocolate eggs and the Easter Bunny have long dominated Scandinavia’s Easter celebrations, the Nordics nevertheless continue to celebrate some ancient conventions of their own.
Easter is a time of birth and rebirth. In the Nordic countries more so: Easter hails the beginning of a new time of light and warmth, when the snow melts and the sun shines once more after months of darkness. It’s strange then that it is at Easter Norwegian bookshops see rapid sales of crime fiction, radio and television stations air dark dramas, and even local newspapers publish a foldout whodunit.
Easter in Scandinavia, this most holy of festivals, can nowadays seem an almost secular affair. While most Scandinavians are still believers, church attendance is rapidly declining and the focus on Easter Day – though it may still have religious symbolism – is less about getting down on one’s knees to pray and more about getting down on one’s hands and knees to scrub the summerhouse as it reopens for another year. Swedes have a particularly sweet tooth at Easter: the average Swedish Easter egg weighs an astonishing one kilogram.
In Finland, though, a pudding of rye, molasses and orange zest: mämmi, remains just as much a sign that Easter has arrived as an abundance of chocolate eggs. Eating the pudding is a bit like eating Brussels sprouts at Christmas: you either love it or hate it, but either way it is an irreplaceable component of the festive meal. While in most countries families are visited by the Easter Bunny, in Finland you are just as likely to open your door to a group of witches, as children from the neighbourhood dress up and travel from house to house chanting “virvon, virvon, tuoreeks terveeks, tulevaks vuodeks; vitsa sulle, palkka mulle!” (“I have a twig for a fresh and healthy year ahead; a twig for you, a treat for me!”). Reward the witches with a treat, the rhyme has been approved and your house is clear of evil spirits; fail to give up some of your chocolate and the evil spirits remain, though you might still be in with a chance of redemption if you join your neighbours at a bonfire party that night; the smoke should ward off potential sorcerers.
And the Danes keep up their traditions too: in a convention dating back to the 1600s, people still send each other gækkebreve, homemade letters made to look like snowflakes with holes in them. The recipient of each letters has three chances to guess the sender’s identity. If they fail, they owe the sender a chocolate egg.