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Old World Easter Customs Remembered

Easter is just a few days away, a holiday full of bunnies, brightly colored eggs, chocolates and dressing up in new clothes for church — at least if you are an American. But what about visitors from other countries spending Easter here.? What are their Easter traditions? A number students and au pairs living and working in Northern Virginia were happy to supply some answers.

In Sweden, Easter begins with Palm Sunday, which is a day that commemorates Christ's triumphant entry into Jerusalem. For religious people it is a day of joyous parades, where they carry branches of budding willows to lay before the images of Christ.

There is also a superstition associated with the Swedish Easter. People used to believe that witches were exceptionally active and that their black magic was exceptionally strong during Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday they were supposed to fly off on their brooms to a place called "Blåkulla," where they would meet with the devil.

As a result of this, it is a tradition for Swedish boys and girls to dress up as hags and go from door to door on Maundy Thursday, visiting neighbors and giving them a "Happy Easter" card in return for some candy or money. Katarina Lundmark, a Swedish student doing her internship for Leading Ladies, a women's networking company in Ballston, remembers this tradition. "I dressed up as an Easter hag until I was 14 years old. Usually you stop when you start high school, but not me. I forced my friends' little brothers and sisters to go with me, so that I wouldn't feel so stupid, being 14 and all."

EGGS ARE THE MOST COMMON EASTER FOOD in Sweden, but people also eat a lot of marinated herring. The eggs are decorated in different patterns and colors before they are eaten on the evening before Easter Sunday. "Me and my brothers always used to color hard-boiled eggs for Easter," Lundmark said. "Every year we also painted one raw egg and put it among the boiled ones. It was so much fun to see who got that egg. One year it ended up to be my grandmother, and she got really shocked, because imagine what happened when she tried to peel it," Lundmark said and laughed.

Another custom is to give the children hollow plastic or cardboard eggs full of candy and money on Easter Eve, a tradition highly appreciated by the young population of Sweden, and the old. "I still love the candy-filled Easter eggs," Lundmark said. "Especially if I get lots of chocolate in them. So even though I'm too old to dress up as an Easter hag now, I'll never be too old for Swedish Easter chocolate," Lundmark said with a smile.

An old tradition that most Swedes have forgotten about, or try to forget about, is the event that used to take place on Good Friday. Early in the morning all the boys in the villages of Northern Sweden used to gather, armed with twigs and branches. Then they went to every house and they sought all the girls and whipped them with the branches until the poor girls gave them some liquor. The girls got their revenge, though, because the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday was payback time! Luckily, this is a tradition that the Swedes have abandoned.

IN DENMARK PEOPLE CELEBRATE EASTER by decorating the inside and the outside of their homes with eggs and chickens. "We also blow eggs and paint them in different colors and patterns," said Sandra Christensen, a Danish au pair living in Herndon.

"We also have a big family dinner, where we eat herring and egg salad on rye bread and of course drink schnapps. The most common one is called ‘Gammeldansk,’" Christensen explained.

Another Danish tradition for the children is to anonymously send each other letters with short riddles in them. "You never write who it's from, you just draw the same amount of dots that there are letters in your name," Christensen said. "The person who gets the letter has to guess who sent it, and if one gets it right, the person who sent it has to give that person a chocolate egg."

ITALY IS A COUNTRY WHERE TRADITION and ritual play a strong role in the culture, especially during celebrations like Easter. “On Easter Sunday lots of people go to church,” said Marina Pauletto, an au pair from Italy. “Usually my mother took me and my sister to church.” Today mostly old people celebrate Easter the traditional way. “The young people eat lunch with their families, then, bye-bye.” Pauletto said.

The best thing about Easter, according to Pauletto, is that you can have a vacation. The Monday following Easter is an official Italian holiday, called “la Pasquetta.” The bad thing is that the shops are closed. “You can’t do anything,” she said.

On Easter Monday the Italians have a competition in which the eggs are the stars of the game. Eggs are frequently used during Easter, because they are the symbol of life, fertility and birth. The Italians use a lot of eggs when they bake their bread and cakes. One type of bread is called “Colomba Pasquale.” There are several legends about this sweet bread, which comes from either the Milan or Pavia area. Each area claims it was first. The bread is arranged in two pieces and looks like a dove and is covered with crystallized sugar and whole, unpeeled almonds.

Another tradition is to give each other chocolate eggs. The children get big eggs with a toy or a game inside, and the adults get small ones. “When I was little, I couldn’t wait to open the eggs and see the surprises inside,” Pauletto said.

They also eat lamb. Historically, a whole lamb, a symbol of Jesus Christ, was roasted over open-air spits. This tradition persists today, although some families prefer leg-of-lamb roasts, simply for their convenience. As at all other Italian feasts, the Easter meal also includes plenty of wine.

EASTER IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC is a fun time. "Many old traditions are still observed and practiced, especially in the smaller villages," said Josef Cerni, a Czech au pair living in Reston.

In the Czech republic children get out of school on Ugly Wednesday (the Wednesday before Easter Sunday), which is necessary because they have a lot of preparing to do for Easter. On the evening of Green Thursday, all the boys in the villages arm themselves with wooden rattles and charge through the streets rattling them vigorously. The reason they do this is to chase away Judas. The procedure is repeated on Good Friday and White Saturday.

On Easter Sunday girls and women decorate the Easter eggs, and the boys and men prepare their whips. "The whips are used by the boys on Easter Monday, when they walk around and whip the girls’ legs with them," Cerni said. "The whips are made from osier [willow] twigs which are braided together," explained Petra Dostalova, an au pair in Reston. "Some men don't even bother making these whips; they just use a kitchen spatula," Dostalova added.

It is also common that the boys grab the girls and throw them in cold water or splash water, which is supposed to chase away bad spirits and illness. After all the whipping and splashing, the girls, strangely enough, give the boys painted eggs or candy and tie a ribbon around the whip. This egg-and-ribbon tradition is changing, though. "Nowadays it is more common to offer the men a shot of alcohol instead of an egg," Cerni said.

There are also some traditional foods that the Czechs prepare for Easter. "My family always eat cabbage soup, schnitzels and potato salad and baguettes filled with lettuce, mayonnaise, peas, cucumbers and other vegetables," Dostalova said. "My family also does that. And for dessert we always make a special cake that's shaped like a hare or a lamb. I'm really going to miss that big family lunch this year, and the atmosphere around it," Cerni added.

IN POLAND, A CATHOLIC EASTER TRADITION is the fast lasting from Friday through Sunday, in some families even on Monday, where one attends church every day. On Holy Saturday morning, little baskets with bread, pepper and salt and other foods are brought to church for blessing. Afterward, the basket is brought back home for a Sunday-morning meal with the family. "Usually my family meets for breakfast, lunch and dinner," said Kasia Trebska from Poland, referring to the different traditions across the country, depending on what religion you belong to. Trebska is working as an au pair in Herndon.

On Monday, the Polish people are off from work and school. Similar to a Slavic custom, boys run after girls with water bottles, quite a popular tradition among youngsters. Later that week, the custom is reversed to the girls' advantage. "Sometimes it is really funny, but also some do not know when to stop," Kasia said, remembering when she was badly hit with a plastic bag of water thrown from several floors above her, as she was walking on the street.

LIKE THE TRADITIONS IN MOST COUNTRIES, Easter is not only a religious holy day but also a family tradition, with Friday and Monday off from work and school in Germany.

"Most Germans are not very religious," said Felix Milbrecht from Germany. "We usually hide eggs with candy inside and let the kids look for them, " he said. Milbrecht is working as an au pair in Dunn Loring.

"During Easter we decorate our homes with a lot of colorful eggs", said Wiebke Muck, a German au pair living in Herndon. Wood branches are also brought inside and then decorated with little Easter eggs and bunnies.

"In front of the houses, we set up a nest, so that the Easter Bunny can put chocolate and presents in it," said Martina Meurer

"In my family we eat apples," said Anne Kummerow. Kummerow, a German au pair working in Oak Hill, is referring to the apple's symbolic meaning of staying healthy for the year to come.

On Good Friday, a typical tradition is to eat fish. Later during the Easter celebration, another typical dish is lamb, but also duck on some occasions. "Then we have the Grühnesause," said Daniela Scheuch, another German au pair who is currently working for a family in Reston. The sauce is made out of eggs and mayonnaise and served together with baked potatoes and eggs.

In addition to the Easter decorations and typical food dishes, the Germans also have a tradition of lighting bonfires across the country, called "The Easter Fires," in celebration of the spring soon to come.