In the Christian calendar, the Thursday before Easter is a holy day that kicks off the celebration of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which culminates on Easter Sunday. In Sweden, it’s also a day when witches come out.
Known in English as Maundy Thursday, the day is called Skärtorsdagen in Swedish — a name that comes from the Old Norse word skíra, meaning “clean,” reflecting a Roman-Catholic tradition in which the Thursday before Easter was considered a day of cleansing. Skíra becomes skär in modern Swedish, and torsdag means Thursday, so the name Skärtorsdagen can be translated as “the cleansing Thursday.”
In Swedish folk tradition, Skärtorsdagen was also believed to be the day when witches flew off on broomsticks to the legendary island of Blåkulla to feast and dance with the Devil. The reasoning behind this belief was that this was the day that Judas betrayed Jesus, an act that set loose all the evil forces in the world.
This belief in Blåkulla and consorting with Satan featured prominently in the bloody witch trials that took place in Sweden during the 17th century. Between 1668 and 1676 around 300 people were executed as witches, usually accused of having stolen children and brought them to the Devil at Blåkulla. The largest single witch trial took place in Torsåker near Sollefteå in Ångermanland, where 71 people were burned at the stake in June 1675. Of these, 65 were women — a fifth of the entire adult female population of the parish!
These days, witches are still active on Skärtorsdagen, but mainly in the form of young children who dress up as Easter witches, or påskkärringar. Wearing kerchiefs on their heads and with big freckles and rosy cheeks painted on their faces, they go door-to-door wishing people a happy Easter and receiving candy in return (similar to the American tradition of trick-or-treating on Halloween).
The påskkärring tradition has been around since at least the early 19th century, though originally it was teenagers and young adults who dressed up to cause mischief, rather than cute kids receiving candy. Although Skärtorsdagen is the day for påskkärringar in much of Sweden, there are some parts of western Sweden where Saturday, the day before Easter, is the traditional day for dressing up as witches. The night between Saturday and Easter Sunday was another time when witches were traditionally believed to be active, as they flew back home from Blåkulla.
In Norway and Denmark, the name of the day is the same as in Sweden — spelled Skjærtorsdag in Norwegian and Skærtorsdag in Danish — but there is no tradition of Easter witches. Unlike in Sweden, however, it’s a public holiday, so most people get the day off from work.
Published 18 April 2019