Wednesday, July 28, 2021
July 28, 2021

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Palm Sunday traditions blend in Finland

Girls dressed as witches offer blessings for candy

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A girl holds a fancy catkin branch on Palm Sunday.
A girl holds a fancy catkin branch on Palm Sunday. (Photos by Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva) Photo Gallery

HELSINKI — The witches are out, but don’t despair. Instead of casting evil spells, they wish you well, although you’d better have some candy on hand.

Every year before Easter, girls dressed as witches appear on Finnish doorsteps in a blend of Eastern and Western religious traditions related to spring. They hand over catkin branches, reciting wishes for good health in exchange for chocolate or other candies.

“A twig for you, a treat for me!” 8-year-old “sorcerer” Isara chants, waving her catkin wand decorated with paper strips and feathers. In exchange, the “witch” eagerly receives a handful of chocolate eggs, which she stuffs into a copper pot.

“The most important thing are the sweets,” her 8-year-old friend Linda said Sunday.

On the northeastern periphery of Europe, the Finnish version of trick-or-treat reflects the Nordic country’s straddling of East and West, combining the Russian Orthodox tradition of blessing cattle and farms with branches of pussy willow and the Swedish custom of dressing up as witches before Easter.

On Palm Sunday, girls don long, flowing skirts and wrap bright scarves around faces freckled with soot and red spots.

Ethnologists say Finland’s Palm Sunday practices came from the Eastern region of Karelia, where Russian traditions were strong even when it was a part of Finland. Farmers in Karelia for centuries have taken pussy willows to neighbors in lieu of palm leaves on Palm Sunday as a gesture of blessing.

The tradition of children dressing up as witches came from Sweden, where, since the early 19th century, they went door to door with drawings that were exchanged for treats.

Finland, which shares a 800-mile border with its eastern neighbor, Russia, was a semi-autonomous grandy ducy in the Czarist Empire for a century before gaining independence in 1917. Before that, Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom for seven centuries. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the two traditions blended.

Today’s witches, instead of traditional scarves, often wear pointed witch hats in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Some even don masks.

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