Happy Easter!

GEP1.JPGHomes in the Netherlands go yellow overnight, Germans hang a wreath on their front doors, hot cross buns are on sale in all UK shops and the Spanish have started their Semana Santa (Holy Week) complete with parades presenting the story of the Passion of Christ, and nazarenos wearing those pointy hoods. It must be nearly Easter.  But just how much do you know about Easter and how it is celebrated in other parts of Europe?

Did you know that the celebration of Easter is based on a mix of pagan, Christian and Hebrew traditions? Most European countries have taken the Hebrew word for Pesach (Passover) for their name of the celebration, such as Pasen (Netherlands), Paques (France), Pascua (Italian), Pascha (Greek) and Pask (Sweden). Only the British and German are different. They use the word Easter (Ostern), which comes from the Goddess ‘Eastre’, who during Saxon times was celebrated at the Spring Equinox.

A moveable Feast

In 325AD it was decided that Easter would always take place on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.  And as the lunar cycle is not the same as our calendar, Easter and everything directly linked to it moves around every year.

There are of course many common features to the Easter celebrations. For instance, none of us could imagine Easter without chocolate, it just wouldn’t be the same. Similarly, painted Easter eggs are common all over Europe, although many regions have their own traditional designs and colour schemes. But if you look around Europe you will also find things that are perhaps a bit more out of the ordinary.

Palm Sunday

In many countries the Easter celebration starts with Palm Sunday, a week before Easter Sunday. These days twigs, branches and pussy willow symbolise the palm leaves that would have paved Jesus’ path into Jerusalem, as palm leaves are in short supply in most of Europe. In Croatia they are often replaced by olive branches which are woven into delicate wreaths or crosses. These ‘poma’ are bought on the way to church and blessed by the priest during the service.

palm pasen stok.jpgI remember taking part in Palm Sunday parades in the Netherlands, carrying a decorated wooden cross containing a salt dough cockerel and sweets through the streets of our village. Similar things happen in Finland, where children take to the streets carrying baskets full of pussy willow branches decorated with colourful strips of paper and feathers. The twigs are offered to passers-by to wish them good health.

Holy Thursday / Maundy Thursday

On the day which commemorates the last supper, church bells in France and parts of Belgium church bells are silenced and won’t ring again until Easter Sunday. French children are told that the bells have flown to Rome to visit the Pope and that they have taken with them everybody’s misery.

There used to be an old tradition in England that on Maundy Thursday the King or Queen would wash and kiss the feet of the poor in Westminster Abby (after these had been washed of course by the Yeoman of the Laundry!). This tradition stopped in 1689 but these days the Queen still gives special Maundy money to pensioners. This year the Queen, who herself is 84, handed out specially minted silver coins to 84 men and 84 women.

Good Friday

In the UK it is traditional to eat hot cross buns on Good Friday. The cross on top of the buns represents the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Traditionally a day for fasting, these days many people will eat only fish and vegetables on Good Friday.  In the Czech Republic boys carry wooden rattles, hoping to scare off Judas with their noise and to collect a few coins in the process. In most countries though, Good Friday is a quiet day and a day of rest for all.

Easter Saturday

Easter_swieconka2.JPGPolish people go to church on the Saturday before Easter, carrying a wicker basket called Swieconka. The basket is filled with eggs, bread, sausage, horseradish and salt, which the priest will bless during the church service. The content is of course hugely symbolic. Sharing your bread is a sign of friendship and hospitality. The horseradish symbolises the bitterness of Christ’s suffering, and according to the Old Testament, all things offered to God should be salted, which is why the salt is in the basket too. And of course there are the eggs, the ultimate symbol of life!

Easter Sunday

All over Europe the bells will ring out on Easter Sunday and some churches organise sunrise services. For those who had given it up for lent, Easter Sunday means a return to glorious melt-in-your-mouth chocolate Easter eggs, while French children are told that the bells have returned from Rome carrying Easter eggs and church bells made out of chocolate.

Did you know that for some reason, Norwegians like to read crime stories at Easter, and television stations in Norway will always show crime stories at this time of year! The Easter Bunny just doesn’t get a look-in!

The Swedes believe that at Easter, witches fly to the Devil who lives in the Blue Mountains. According to legend, the only way to stop the witches is to give them sweets, so to this day, Swedish children will dress up as witches at Easter and walk around their neighbourhood begging for sweets.

Latvia Easter Swing.jpgIn Latvia it is customary to swing on Easter morning. Swinging was thought to be connected to fertility. A husband and wife swing first, followed by the rest of the family. According to local superstitions, you mustn’t stop swinging until the swing has stopped all by itself, otherwise it will be a bad harvest. 🙂

In Poland Easter Sunday is a real family affair as they share the food that has been blessed the day before. The egg is equally shared out amongst all the family members. Popular cakes are the Mazurek (a flat cake) and the Easter Baba, a cake baked in the shape of a woman’s skirt. And no Polish table would be complete without a sugar lamb in the middle of the breakfast table!

Easter Monday

The real fun in Poland begins on Easter Monday with the celebration of Smingus Dyngus. This old pagan tradition gives every Polish person the right to splash his/her loved ones with water. The water symbolises purification, and over the centuries this has grown into a serious annual water fight. Of course, the first one up in the morning has a huge advantage over the rest of the household, and will happily splash everybody before setting off down the road with a water pistol to spray other unsuspecting victims.

And so ends our whistle-stop tour of European Easter celebrations, although there are many more that I could write about.  So which of these is my favourite? Actually – I love them all, but I must admit that I do like the idea of splashing everybody – it would at least get some of our brood out of their beds a little earlier. Perhaps it is worth a little try this year?

Have a very Happy Easter everybody!

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  1. Aleida Brinkman
    Posted April 4, 2010 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    very interesting to read. I also remember that is used to be a must to have new clothing for Easter. In the Netherlands is was called…. op je paas best gekleed te zijn……Being dressed for Easter.

  2. Alison Paton
    Posted April 8, 2010 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I really like this! it gives a great overview, I liked the Norwegian crime story idea – I never knew that! in fact much of it I didn’t know so: it’s a real success!

  3. Olivier
    Posted April 14, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    Happy Easter too! In Bulgaria, they boil eggs, decorate them and then play the “eggs fight”: the first player holds the egg in his hand and the second player hits it with another egg. Then you look which egg is broken (which is not always the attacking one)…repeat the process with all decorated eggs (with inscription such as “Mum is the best”, “I will win” and drawings). In the end, you will have a winner egg that you keep for a couple of days…you can eat the others! There are some tips to recognise a champion egg, but I won’t tell you now…

  4. Posted May 3, 2010 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    great post as usual!

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