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Witches and bonfires: Ostrobothnia celebrates Easter

Easter traditions in the western Finland region of Ostrobothnia are a grab bag of old superstitions and new rites of spring from both the east and west. On Easter Saturday, children dress as witches and go door-to-door in search of chocolate in the morning, and in the evening locals burn impressive Easter bonfires to repel bad spirits and usher in a good harvest.

Pääsiäiskokko Kaskisissa 19.4.2014.
An Easter bonfire burns in the western coastal city of Kaskinen in 2014. Residents of Ostrobothnia burn bonfires Saturday night to chase away the evil spirits before Easter Sunday. Image: Heikki Torala, Kaskinen.

While children dress as witches and collect chocolate from their neighbours already on Palm Sunday in the rest of Finland, in the western region of Ostrobothnia, the tradition is saved for Easter Saturday. Alavus resident Salme Henell has studied Finnish dialects and traditions and she points out that Ostrobothnia, like the rest of Finland, has adopted a healthy mix of eastern and western rituals in its Easter celebration.

“Some members of the Eastern Orthodox Church object to the fact that children are dressed as witches as they go door-to-door. Originally, the children went from house to house to bless the occupants and wish them good luck in the coming year. It isn’t very appropriate that they are doing this in a witch costume, but this is a prime example of how the traditions get mixed up.”  

Dressing up like a witch is a legacy of the western culture.

“In the past, witches travelled around doing mischief. They would go into barns and cut the wool off the sheep, and even cut a piece of leather from the animals. They believed that this way they could bring bad luck to the livestock owner, while at the same time, bringing good luck to themselves,” says Henell.

Henell says that back in 1942, during her childhood in the city of Jalasjärvi, it wasn’t yet part of the Southern Ostrobothnia Easter tradition for the children to go from house to house.

“The tradition was adopted in different places at different times, but it only began to be a part of general practice in the 1970s. The Karelian refugees first brought it to Ostrobothnia, along with various foods and other traditions,” she says. 

Gather 'round the bonfire

Once the children fill their stomachs with chocolate, families gather 'round an Easter bonfire in the evening, a tradition that is largely limited to the Finnish regions of Southern and Central Ostrobothnia.

“The region of Satakunta shares many of the same Easter traditions as Ostrobothnia, but they do not burn Easter bonfires,” says Henell.

The Ostrobothnia Easter bonfire tradition gathers relatives from near and far, and larger village associations arrange massive bonfires that attract residents from areas hundreds of kilometres away.

The website of the South Ostrobothnia travel agency Etelä-Pohjanmaan Matkailu Oy has compiled a list in Finnish of the locations of the area bonfires that will be lit on Saturday evening, with the most notable bonfires arranged in the cities of Ilmajoki, Jalasjärvi and Seinäjoki. In the capital city region, the Seurasaari Open-air Museum also plans to host an Eastern bonfire Saturday evening.

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