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Finland's Easter witch custom gets pandemic update

Social distancing measures have cast a hex on the tradition of collecting treats in exchange for decorated branches.

Virpomavitsoja
Easter witches chant a rhyme and offer decorated willow branches as part of an age-old Palm Sunday tradition in Finland. Image: Tarja Nyyssönen / Yle

Palm Sunday has been like no other in recent memory for Finland's traditional Easter witches, who dress up and offer decorated willow branches and good wishes for the year ahead in exchange for candy.

With social distancing rules in force to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus, the little conjurers can no longer greet householders at the door to chant their rhymes and hand over the whimsical offerings.

Finland's Evangelical Lutheran Church is advising members not to visit neighbours and elderly relatives, although they can observe the tradition within the same household. Church services specialist Terhi Paananen said however that Easter witches can relay their recitations via video and they can also send Easter greetings via electronic cards.

They are also advised to call ahead before leaving willow branches at recipients' doors along with a greeting card. Churches will remain closed but many Lutheran and Orthodox church parishes will stream services online.

Meanwhile some residents of Turku in southwest Finland have come up with a remote version of the custom that is suited to the extraordinary times.

Eija Luoto said that she had followed the news of how people in Italy and Spain have used their balconies to sing and create a sense of community. Why not do the same with the pre-Easter tradition, she thought.

"My eight-year-old granddaughter was so sad that she couldn't go out on Palm Sunday this year," Luoto commented, adding that she also thought about elderly folk who are often happy to see the little well-wishers at their door.

"Our housing company also has seniors who are shut up in their homes. What could be nicer than organising something to sheer up the adults and the children," she continued.

Keeping a safe distance between witches and householders

Luoto first informed residents that Easter witches would be visiting by dropping a note through their mail flaps. The witches then left decorated branches at the apartment block's main door, while householders could throw down sweets from the balconies. Residents were told to remain on their balconies and not to come down to the yard.

Ahead of the big day on Sunday, residents of Betaniankatu 10 went through a dress rehearsal on Friday and found that it worked perfectly. Luoto's granddaughter, Anna Salakari arrived with a few friends: eight-year-old Viola Lithonius, Isabella Kirvelä Nkulu, 10 and Lukas Lithonius, 6.

Story continues after photo.

Kahdeksanvuotias Viola Lithonius virpoi tuoreeks, terveeks.
Eight-year-old Viola Lithonius said she has dressed as a bunny in the past. Image: Päivi Leppänen / Yle

The visitors were dressed as a witch, an Easter bunny, a cat and Harry Potter and all carried brightly-adorned willow branches. Looking up, the children recited the traditional rhyme, after which they received their treats.

Some residents tossed down loose candies, while one had packed treats in a plastic bag. One family lowered a basket full of sweets along a rope, an idea that was the brainchild of amateur climber and housing company chair Niko Vähäsarja.

Story continues after photo.

Niko Vähäsarja laittaa virpomispalkkiot korilla köyttä pitkin lapsille pihaan.
Niko Vähäsarja put his climbing ropes to good use. Image: Päivi Leppänen / Yle

"It was the first thing that came to mind when I was thinking of how to get the candies to the witches. Because of my climbing hobby, I have all kinds of rope and so I put them to use," he said.

Vähäsarja commended fellow-resident Eija Luoto for her idea and said people needed different sources of comfort and cheer during the current crisis.

Witches quickly adapt

Like children often do, these Easter witches took the experience in stride.

"It was a bit weird but it was still fun," bunny-costumed Viola Lithonius said.

"It felt different but it was really nice to be able to go out," witch Anna Salakari added.

"They got to hear our song and see our costumes," Isabella Kirvelä Nkulu commented.

Story continues after photo.

Lapset saavat virpomispalkkansa pärekorissa köyttä pitkin parvekkeelta.
The foursome getting used to the new way of doing things. Image: Päivi Leppänen / Yle

A Facebook group promoting the distance version of the custom has since been established. Its purpose is to find well-wishers and match them with possible locations where they would be welcome and to provide tips about how to practice the tradition.

"For example there was one tip for children to write letters and attach feathers. The rhyme and branch can also be delivered in an envelope," grandmother Luoto declared.

Another idea was for the Easter characters to send their greetings via video. Meanwhile the youth league of the Finnish Orthodox Church has provided guidelines on how to observe the tradition while practicing distance safety during the pandemic.

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