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Easter tradition brings witches door-to-door

Watch out for Easter witches and bunnies roaming your neighbourhood today as Finland celebrates its annual Palm Sunday tradition of 'virvonta', in which children exchange a decorated pussy-willow branch and a good-luck chant for treats.

Virpomisvitsa ja suklaamunia.
Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

Palm Sunday in Finland is home to a particular tradition that entails children dressing up in costumes and going door-to-door collecting sweets. Witches and trolls conventionally recite a rhyme wishing the residents health for the following year and exchange decorated pussy-willow branches for Easter candy.

The practice is believed to be a mixture of Orthodox Easter customs from Eastern Finland with pre-Christian rituals from Western Finland.

Recent years have seen the amalgamated tradition expand to include more variety in costumes, similar to the way Halloween trick-or-treaters dress up in English-speaking countries.

There may be a reward dynamic at play: Marja-Leena Pönnelin from the MaraKatti costume shop in Vantaa's Flamingo shopping centre told ilta-Sanomat that some of her store's customers are convinced that if they have a fancy costume, they will get a better stash of candy. 

Combination of two traditions

The 'virvonta' history in the eastern part of the country did not include the children dressing up in any special way. Orthodox Church adherents find the notion of witches distributing the branches odd, as the chant and gift were originally meant as a blessing the children would bestow by sharing the church-annointed branches.

It was only once the tradition spread to the rest of Finland with the Karelian evacuees that the costume elements of the western observation of the holiday became mixed in. 

The Finnish tradition is linked to pagan spring rituals found in all of the Nordic countries, where children dress as witches to dispel bad spirits ahead of the next growing season.

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