Scandinavian Easter

A Mysterious Mixture Indeed


This Easter, I’m celebrating by breaking open a Swedish delicacy: a bottle of påskmust, appropriately decorated with Sweden’s traditional Easter rooster (påsktuppen).

Um … rooster?

Well, yes. The Easter rooster lays colorful eggs filled with candy. As the blogger at Nordic Nuts points out, “everyone knows that bunnies don’t lay eggs.”

Not feeling up to the gender ramifications of Sweden’s Easter messenger, I will return to the bottle, which I have had since 2010. (Don’t worry, Sweden – I won’t hold you liable.)

Påskmust – literally, “Easter sap” – is a soft drink a little like cola, a little like root beer, made by different Swedish bottlers from an exclusive syrup produced by Roberts AB in Örebro. Its partner, julmust (the same beverage in a different holiday bottle), comprises 42 million liters of the soft drink consumption at Christmas. Hops and malt and a secret blend of spices reflect the drink’s origins as a non-alcoholic alternative to beer over the holidays, and Roberts AB affirms that the taste “ripens,” growing rounder and fuller after a year in a glass bottle in a cold, dark environment.

We’ll see about three years in plastic in a refrigerator.

In January of this year, the European Union, carrying on the surprisingly apt role of Grinch, seemed to threaten must with its proposed ban on malt beverages containing food coloring.  The Swedish newspaper Expressen reassured readers that must contains “malt flavoring,” not malt, and is not fermented. Hence, they trust, it will not fall under the EU’s sinister and sudden interest in beverages.

The questions surrounding the relationship of must to alcohol raise a certain irony in the Scandinavian Easter setting, as in neighboring Norway, skjærtorsdag (Maundy Thursday) marks many Norwegians’ start of the Easter weekend (påskehelgen) with a trip to Sweden’s liquor stores. Newspaper Dagavisen‘s ode to the dominance of påsk in virtually every compound word in this season highlights the role of “Easter drink,” elaborating soulfully on the right wines for lamb, the best Easter beers for brunch, and the historical significance of sherry with herring.

Crocuses in PhillyWith publicity like that, no wonder Norwegians crashed the Web site of Vinmonopolet, the state wine and liquor store, on the Wednesday before the Easter weekend. CyberBunker has nothing on thirsty Norwegians facing five nearly retail-less days, seeking the opening and closing times of the national booze shop.

Because of widescale store closures over the generous Maundy Thursday-to-Easter Monday spring holiday – during which only a few Scandinavians will enter a church (more Catholics than mainstream Protestants in Norway, and possibly fewer than one in six Norwegians overall) – the looser regulations of neighboring Sweden draw queues of Norwegians on skjærtorsdag. Swedes may find in this a certain symmetry, as skärtorsdag for them is when Swedish children dress up as påskkärringar (Easter witches), grab up their brooms, and head out to the neighbors to ask for treats.

Yes, I know it sounds a lot like Halloween. But this is the time of year in Sweden when the witches fly off to dance with the devil at Blåkulla. You wouldn’t think a few thousand drunken Norwegians would pose a great problem, despite Swedes’ widescale recognition of the solemnity of Good Friday.

The secular pilgrimage of young Norwegians to Strömstad, Bohuslan, south of Halden, Østfold, has (happily or otherwise) become part of the holiday weekend’s traditions for both countries – as have the arrests of several of the drunken partiers (up at 30 this year, after last year’s 26). Traffic to Strömstad this year backed up roughly 30 miles from the Swedish town, over the border into Østfold.

Oranges and orange juicePåsketraffik likewise characterizes the more traditional, less rowdy pursuits of a Norwegian Easter, earning the national press coverage that all traffic in Norway merits (unlike Philadelphia’s ho-hum approach to a two-hour commute of 12 miles). In this season heralding the coming of spring, many Norwegians head for the mountains to ski or to open their cabins (hytter) preparatory to summer.

This year brought the most beautiful Easter weather for skiers in southern and western Norway that many could remember: clear, sunny, and cold. Ski runs in Sogn og Fjordane have been elated, seeing record numbers of guests. (Unfortunately, the Red Cross has also seen record numbers of injuries.)

The mood affected the national traffic watchers, who remarked that, sure, the highways were clogged, but it should be a lovely trip. Just watch out for the avalanches.

While enjoying the Easter sun at the hytte, relaxing with påskekrimmen (the traditional crime novel), or hitting the slopes, Norwegians will consume nearly 5,000 tons of oranges – or, as Dagavisen describes it, 1,400 kilometers, slightly more than the queues for Easter traffic (running roughly the distance from Oslo in the south to Harstad in the north). Ever since oranges first entered Norway about a century ago, they have become the favorite Easter fruit: a sign of the return of sunshine and warmer weather, and a snack as ubiquitous as a Kvikk Lunsj bar (the Norwegian version of KitKat).

This year, Scandinavia – like all of northern Europe – needs all the signs of spring it can get. Forecasters admit that “spring” doesn’t quite feature in the long-range forecast yet. In northern Norway, heavy snowfall in Tromsø piled the banks up to 52 inches on the ground, which NRK reported sourly with the headline “Dette er en bil” (This is a car) above a photograph depicting an odd mound that might, conceivably, be a troll.

Still, with clocks moving into the Scandinavian version of Daylight Savings Time this Easter weekend, while an hour is lost from the glorious weekend, the longer days promise an eventual end to the cold that has locked northern Europe in the deep freeze. The cows may not like it, but the people do. Even with wood stoves burning, the return to the cabins in Norway and Sweden, preparing for summertime reunions with nature after months of confinement, reflects the optimism the season should carry.

Cross at Olavskirke Ruin in Bamble

Cross in the Maria Chapel in the ruins of Olavskirken in Bamble, Telemark.

Does it do so in the United States? I hope so. The major holiday activity is considerably at odds with much of our recent pattern of keeping stores open and performing business as usual. After Good Friday services this year, I went to the bank – an unusual activity, as until the last year or so they made a point of closing at noon, half in observance of the day’s religious import, half to give employees a longer weekend. As the security guard lamented, this year they were having none of it – just as more and more businesses open on Thanksgiving and Christmas Days.

Many observant Christian Americans may cringe at aspects of Scandinavian Easter. But as an English immigrant to Sweden pointed out to journalist Gisela Karlmark, the season stands out in Scandinavia, while in the United States and United Kingdom, “Easter celebrations have almost disappeared unless you’re religious.” As Karlmark puts it, “Swedes celebrate Easter religiously, but religion has little to do with it.” That may raise interesting theological questions about the letter of the gospel and the spirit of the gospel.

Such questions aside, however, as I told a Norwegian friend some time ago, whatever happens to the church in Norway, Christianity will remain strong in the culture.

No Norwegian is giving up a five-day weekend.