Long before Easter, children sow raygrass seeds in saucers and place them on the windowsills to sprout. They put willow branches into vases of water to bud. These days, tulips, lilies and narcissus are imported from continental Europe, but in the days before they were flown in, they were simply made out of tissue paper and painted feathers.
Easter is at the center of a number of festivals marking the beginning of spring. Seven weeks before Easter, Mardi Gras, or Laskiainen in Finnish, is observed. This day traditionally marked the beginning of Catholic and Orthodox Lent. In the Kingdom of Sweden, to which Finland belonged until 1809, the Protestant religion had been adopted in the 16th century, so the meaning of Mardi Gras was changed to become, at least in rural areas, a day marking the annual cycle of women's labor. A feast was held and the whole village headed out to sled on the snowy slopes.
It has been centuries since the Finns have observed Lent but they still retain the tradition of eating well on Mardi Gras: pea soup, pancakes and buns filled with whipped cream, jam or almond paste. From the Orthodox they also adopted the custom of blini, or buckwheat pancakes.
Mardi Gras is an important winter day. Children leave their daycares or schools to go out sledding. Prayers are recited for a good flax harvest and so that the turnips grow as big as fists. Mardi Gras is, in the city, a time to celebrate life outdoors and at the same time to ward off the risks of poor nutrition.
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday and ends with Easter Sunday and Monday. On Palm Sunday you can get a bunch of consecrated willow boughs and go to offer good wishes to family and friends, a custom called Virpominen in Finnish. It comes from an old Orthodox tradition from Eastern Finland: children used to go from house to house waking up the people of the neighborhood by tapping on their doors with budding willow branches. Since the beginning of the last century, the custom has been widespread throughout Finland.
In the Finnish church calendar, the sufferings of Good Friday took on more importance than the message of joy surrounding Easter. The deep devotion that marked Holy Week was reflected in popular customs. Good Friday was a day of many prohibitions: you were not allowed to make a fire, sweep or spin flax; visits were not permitted, nor could you eat before sundown. In some parts of western Finland, children were whipped at dawn on Good Friday in remembrance of Christ's suffering.
The sun begins to dance
In southwestern Finland, there was a time when on Easter night, children would go from house to house throughout the neighborhood. Their arrival could be heard by the noise of their rattles and cow bells. The uproar marked the end of Holy Week. To the children's great delight, swings and seesaws were built for them in the yards.
An old belief holds that the sun begins to dance on Easter morning, as it joins in the joy at Christ's resurrection. In the old days, people would go out in groups, early in the morning, to a high place to watch the sun make its appearance through the morning mists; then they would bow and begin to skip and hop around joyously.
Mammi and other culinary traditions
The Easter table offers egg, chicken and lamb dishes, inspired by certain traditional Orthodox recipes. Easter lamb is a mainstay.
Pasha is a traditional Easter dessert introduced into Finland at the same time as the Orthodox religion. It's a custom from the former region of Karelia, between the White Sea and the Gulf of Finland, that then belonged to Russia. Moist and delicious, it's served with white bread (nisu) in some regions.
However the most common dessert is called mämmi, the recipe for which dates back to medieval times and which was made in those days in a bark container. It's a kind of brown porridge made from rye flour and malt. Nowadays, the mixture is cooked over low heat in a kind of cardboard container that imitates birch bark, and is served with cream and sugar. In the old days, mämmi was a Lenten provision, often spread on a slice of bread.
Easter mämmi remained for a long time a specialty of southwestern Finland until home economics schools, farm unions and cookbooks helped make it common throughout Finland early in the last century. Before gaining independence in 1917, Finland was searching for typically national cultural touchstones. One of them was mämmi, despite the fact that it was not very sophisticated nor was its dark color very appetizing. But it was, after all, an intrinsically Finnish dish. Today mämmi is a seasonal food that bakeries always offer their customers at the appropriate time. Boxes of mämmi in faux birch bark are appearing in more and more stores shortly after New Year.
Easter eggs are a secular Russian and European custom that didn't make its way to Finland until the 19th century when the raising of chickens became widespread. Easter egg hide-and-seek is now a game beloved by children. Chickens, chicks, decorated eggs and rabbits are symbols of Easter in every Finnish home, even though the idea of the Easter bunny who delivers the eggs is less well-known in Finland.
Today, children anxiously await Mignon eggs, real eggshells filled with milk chocolate.
Trolls act up at Easter
Popular beliefs tell of the machinations of witches and trolls. In old Europe, witches were up to their tricks particuarly on April 30. In the North, on the other hand, it was believed that trolls, evil genies, set to their pranks in the period between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, taking advantage of the fact that Christ was entombed in the grotto.
Another belief held that the trolls were old women in Satan's service. They inspired fear since they had the power to injure humans and pets. In western Finland, it is still common in some regions to make big bonfires on Easter Saturday morning in order to ward off evil spirits.
It was in the last century that witches riding brooms, accompanied by a black cat, became part of Finnish Easter tradition. Of course, these lackeys of the devil lost their evil powers and were turned into amusing good fairies. They can be seen on postcards. Since the 19th century, girls have gone from house to house dressed as little Easter witches, and so as Easter approaches, in the towns and suburbs, you may find yourself face to face with some amazing creatures. Little girls (there may be boys too) wearing headscarves, their faces blackened with charcoal, go from door to door with their brooms, a coffee pot and a bunch of decorated willow boughs. The children recite magic spells to whoever opens the door to them, offering good wishes... as long as they receive a coin or some candy in return!
Photo: Mammi; Studio Fotoni Oy
Hints & Tips