Easter traditions and a sinister background

<img class="size-full wp-image" id="i-8551" alt="Image" src="https://andersmoberg676.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/001.jpg?w=650" />

Soon it is Easter and time to eat eggs. The Easter egg is a symbol for rebirth and firtility. That’s why I the other day chose to take a photo of an eaten egg instead of a whole one. The tradition with eggs at this time of year comes from Persia, but after the introduction of Christianity the tradition became connected with the re-birth of Jesus Christ. The eating of eggs in Christian tradition marks the end of Lent, and the eggs became popular also because the hens started laying their eggs in Springtime. Another custom, at least here in Sweden, is the use of Easter twigs, thin, rough twigs of wood often decorated with died, tiny feathers in various colours; yellow, pink, purple. They are meant to symbolize the palm-leaves that were used by the crowd when Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey at Passover in 30 or 33 A.D. I intend to write more about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the different meanings of Easter and Passover later this week, just before the beginning of Easter.

So, what do we eat at Easter in Sweden? Well, there are variations from family to family, county to county, and shire to shire, but there are some ingredients that almost always appear on the dining table. Eggs of course, often boiled ones, but also fried, coloured candy eggs, salmon, herring, meat balls, crispbread, cheese and must, a kind of sweet cider that is customary both at Christmas and Easter. Beer and other forms of liqour is also a common sight on the dinner table. Another tradition is to use manufactured eggs in various sizes that are hollow and made to divide in two sections. When opened the egg is filled with different kinds of candy. A tradition that started in Pfalz and Elsass, Germany, during the 17th century was the idea of an Easter bunny coming with eggs. This Easter bunny, a rabbit or hare, was for a long time just part of a tradition in that area, but around 1850 the German toy industry launched the Easter bunny as a candy and toy figurine for children. This commercial stunt became a huge success and still is a widely spread Easter tradition in parts of the world, not so much in Sweden though. The tradition with sending Christmas post cards began some time around the year 1900 and has continued since then. After the introduction of e-mails and internet many Easter post greetings in the shape of cards are sent that way, but the ordinary post cards still is part of the Easter industry.

The Easter hag or Easter witch is another Swedish tradition. Children dress up in dresses, cover their hair in a cloth, take a coffee pan and a broom-stick and walk around in the neighbourhood on a candy walk, a Swedish form of trick or treat. Both the tradition of lighting an Easter fire and the figure of the Easter witch might seem innocent at first, but the reality and history behind it is anything but laughable.

In old days Swedish superstition many believed that women who were witches had made a pact with the Devil and travelled on broom-sticks to the Brocken on Maundy Thursday. The Easter fires were lit, mainly in Western Sweden, to frighten the witches and keep them away. Between 1450 and 1700 at least 100 000 people were accused of witchcraft, sorcery and of being enemies of the Church here in Europe. Most of them were accused of heresy and magic sorcery. Between 40 000 and 60 000 were killed, 75% of them were women. The process was similar all over Europe. The witch processes were based on zealous Christian fears, people’s superstition, fear of people with unusual knowledges, the Churche’s hatred and fear of those who didn’t buy the Catholic, (or Protestant) ideology entirely, competition and jealousy between ordinary people, and just evil rumours without any truth in them. The suspicion among people spread all over. Neighbours and family members accusing each other, children accusing their parents, (mainly the mother), and hatred of dissidents. In Sweden the women were believed going to the Bracken to meet the Devil and the sentenced women were decapitated. In Denmark, (which Malmoe was part of during most of that period), the women accused of sorcery were believed to have poisoned or put curses on people or cattle. Those women were burned on a stake. Those who were most accused were midwives, poor women, but also the occassional woman of substance and also a few priest wives. Maybe the priest saw it as a good way of getting rid of an unwanted wife? Those women who came from better circumstances easier defended themselves, and not all were executed. However, many were. The last death sentence for witchery in Denmark was given in 1695 and in Sweden in 1704. The last Swedish witch process was held between 1757 and 1763. Here in Malmoe there were 86 witch processes in 1543 – 1663. Of those 86 women 38 were condemned to be burned on the stake, 14 were expatriated, seven were acquited, nine were released for good behaviour and 11 released after bail was payed. A Danish law from 1547 however said that people who were already convicted weren’t allowed to be witnesses in witch processes. The Danish king Christian IV passed in 1617 a new law that connected witchcraft to the Devil. Christian IV was zealous in the witch hunt, and those women who happened to be accused had to meet a horrible destiny, not just in Malmoe but all over Denmark. But also even before the law from 1617. One of the 86 women in Malmoe who was accused of being a witch was Johanna Nielsdatter. On July 28th 1578 she was standing accused on Stortorget/the Major Square infront of a panel of 15 lay assesors, a board that sentenced her to death. She was then taken to Malmoe Castle that now is a museum, and tortured in jail by the executioner. He used to break the convicted people’s bones, stretch their limbs and burn them with iron rods to force new confessions. Soon afterwards Johanna Nielsdatter was transported on a cart with her arms tied behind her back and taken outside the city to the hills north east of town, called Kirseberg, Cherry Hill. There she was tied to a pole, small sacks of gun powder were hanged around her waist, a priest gave her the last salvation, people were standing around her, pointing fingers, looking frightened, hateful, mocking, spiteful, compassionate. The executioner lit the fire of the stake and the burning flames started eating her body. The gun-powder containers on her sides made the fire burn even wilder and soon the woman on the stake turned into a burned corpse, condemned for invented crimes. It didn’t need much. Being out walking for a simple night stroll in the fresh air was enough for getting the evil tongues going.

Approximately 300 meters from where I live is the old execution site. I live on the outskirts of Kirseberg, Cherry Hill, named after the groves of cherry trees that once grew here. Today Kirseberg is one of the suburbs in Malmoe, but became part of the actual city first around 1900. In the Garrison Park, also called the Park of Thieves, just a few meters from a playing ground for small children there’s a memorial stone. It’s that stone you see in my photo below from August 2012. This is what the text says:

“Memorial stone….Witch burning….”You shall die on fire and stake”. This was the verdict for those women who because of their talents, their knowledges and their way to be were perceived as so dangerous that they were accused of being witches. They were burned at the stake here in Cherry Hill/Kirseberg during the years 1543 and 1663…. Burial ground…. Here in the Garrison Park – The Park of Thieves – far outside the city walls, poor soldiers from the Malmoe Garrison were buried during the years 1809 – 1870, and 1827 – 1891 those convicts who died in jail at Malmoe Castle. This stone honours all those people who for various reasons were excluded from their own times community and encourages the future to reflection and consideration… The inhabitants of The Hill, October 27th 1997. “

Being persecuted or badly treated is still a problem in today’s society. You don’t even have to have done anything wrong. In tough times especially, such as now, it’s extra important to listening in, showing acceptance for human variety, empathy and humane values for people around us. Taking care of our selves and taking care of each other. Do you agree?

Anders Moberg, March the 25th 2013


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