Despite its religious origins, Easter is a mostly secular holiday in Sweden.
Although contemporary Swedes are an urban people, most of whom live in cities or large towns, the vast majority still have one foot in the countryside. If they don’t have any family left in rural parts, they often possess a holiday cottage there.
An agrarian strain runs through Sweden’s self-image: we used to be a nation of strong, sinewy peasants, raised on meat and turnips. Most people are agreed that festive occasions in Sweden should be celebrated in the countryside. Easter is no exception.
Easter is the first extended weekend of the spring, and for many this means the first trip out to their holiday cottage, which has been locked and deserted all winter. There are window shutters to be opened and stuffy rooms to be aired. The woodstoves are lit, and the smoke fills the kitchen, naturally.
Coughing and spluttering, you flee out to the yard, where the wagtails − if you live in southern Sweden, that is − have just begun their mating ritual and the last of the snowdrifts are melting in the pale spring sunshine. In the north, Easter is more of a skiing holiday.
Once the cottage has been cleaned, swept and warmed up, Easter can begin. The members of the family arrive from near and far. At Easter, the aim is to gather as many relatives as possible.
While in other countries Easter is specifically a religious holiday, it has become a secular one in Sweden. The Swedes are well down in the statistics when it comes to church visits per year, and even if Easter swells the numbers slightly, most people celebrate it at home with their families and relatives.
Many of the practices associated with Easter have religious origins, but this is not something that bothers Swedes much. They eat eggs because they have always done so − not because they have just completed a fast.
Nowadays, eggs are a favourite accompaniment to the dish of pickled herring that is the centrepiece of most Swedes’ Easter meals. And few associate the omnipresent birch twigs − nowadays decorated with brightly coloured feathers − with the suffering of Christ. Easter has its own rituals.
From sweets to salmon
Children dress up as Easter witches; clad in discarded clothes, gaily coloured headscarves and red-painted cheeks, they go from house to house in the neighbourhood and present the occupants with paintings and drawings in the hope of getting sweets in return.
Having consumed all these sweets, they are then given Easter eggs filled with yet more. Parents who are more ambitious let the children search for the eggs themselves in a treasure hunt − following clues and solving riddles until they find their prizes.
A traditional Easter lunch is likely to consist of different varieties of pickled herring, gravlax and Jansson’s Temptation (potato, onion and pickled anchovies baked in cream). The table is often laid like a traditional smorgasbord (or smörgåsbord as it’s written in Swedish). Spiced schnapps is also a feature of the Easter table. At dinner, people eat roast lamb with potato gratin and asparagus, or some other suitable side dish.
Swedish Easter – the origins
In Sweden, the Easter celebrations used to begin with the three days of Shrovetide, full of carnivals, games and revelry. Activities included playfully thrashing each other with birch twigs and tobogganing down steep slopes. People were also supposed to mark Shrove Tuesday by eating seven hearty meals before observing a 40-day fast.
Easter commemorates the resurrection of Christ.
Easter begins on Palm Sunday in celebration of Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. In the old days, you were not allowed to spin or chop wood on Maundy Thursday, as this might intensify Christ’s suffering. On that day, witches also flew off to consort with the Devil at Mount Blåkulla. Good Friday was spent in quiet contemplation. People dressed in black and ate salty food without anything to drink. The whole week was designed to recall Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.
On Easter Saturday, the celebrations turned joyful, and people began eating eggs again. Eggs were sometimes painted in different colours, probably because they were often given away as presents. In the 1800s, Swedes began filling paper eggs with sweets. In western Sweden, the practice was to light bonfires, fire shotguns and shout to scare away witches. The custom of bringing birch twigs into the house and decorating them with coloured feathers dates back to the 1880s.