Sunday, 1 April 2012

Finnish Palm Sunday Traditions

Once again the Easter witches have caught me by surprise on Palm Sunday. Although I have lived in Finland for almost ten years every year I forget. In Finland there is a custom where little children go from door to door with brightly decorated pussy willow branches in exchange for candy on Palm Sunday. Luckily I remembered to buy candy three weeks ago. So although I was unaware of this Sunday's significance I was not unprepared and when there was a knock on the door I was able to dig out a big box of candy from the cupboard.

A week or two before Palm Sunday you can see families in the forest searching for budding pussy willow branches. Parents then help their children to decorate them with colourful paper streamers and feathers. The children dress up as witches. Boys may also dress up as cats.  Then they go from door to door reciting the verse: 

I touch you with my magic branch
That will refresh you and keep you well.
You get the branch, I get a reward.

 All the while they wave the willow branch at you. Then they give you the willow branch in exchange for sweets. This is supposed to bring their neighbours good luck and health for the next year. Here is a picture of the branches we got from the children this Palm Sunday.

I have read that dressing up willow branches for church on Palm Sunday was an eastern Finland Orthodox Christian tradition. The willow branches were blessed in church on the Saturday to be given to family and relatives in memory of  the greeting with palms that Jesus received on Palm Sunday. Willow branches were thought to have magical powers and were supposed to bring good luck and health. The tradition of the Easter witch is supposed to be an old western Finland tradition which probably came from Sweden where they would dress up as witches and go from door to door to wish each other a happy Easter. This seems to come from the old pagan superstitions about witches being active around Easter especially on Good Friday when they would fly around and do bad things. Dressing up as Easter witches became prevalent in Sweden and western Finland in the 1800's. But it seems that over the years these two different Finnish traditions have been mixed and become this new "virpominen" tradition in Finland.

It is a unique and interesting Palm Sunday tradition which at first I did not understand. My first Easter in Finland I did not know about this tradition and was awakened by the door bell early on Palm Sunday morning. I wondered who could be at my door, uninvited, early on a Sunday morning? Robert went to the door and then told me that Easter witches were at the door looking for candy. I thought to myself what? I think they have their holidays mixed up that's supposed to be done on Halloween! We spent the rest of that morning hiding in the house, pretending no one was at home since we were unprepared and had not bought any candy. I also forgot the following two years in a row. But lately I have been trying to remember to buy candy way before Easter so that I am prepared when Palm Sunday sneaks up on me. Because ever year I seem to forget that the little Easter witches in their aprons, headscarvesrosy red cheeks and freckles will be coming for their candy.