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Easter in Finland mixes old and modern traditions

Although the Easter holiday really begins with Lent, Easter itself in Finland has become a week-long "holy week," a mixture of historical and contemporary traditions. Some of Finland's Easter traditions are similar to those in the U.S., but some are very different.

The Lutheran Church in Finland starts celebrating the Easter Holy Week on Palm Sunday by blessings using willow twigs, as palms don't grow that far north.

The early part of Holy Week is used to get ready for the four-day Easter holiday, including sending Easter cards and decorating homes with twigs and Easter ornaments. Some even plant rye grass seed in pots to celebrate rebirth and spring. Most also buy or make sweet treats for family and friends, especially the children, who prefer chocolate bunnies and eggs. However, many in Finland and Sweden still prefer the more traditional Finnish Easter dessert, Mämmi, which is made of rye flour, powdered malted rye, and water and seasoned with molasses, salt and dried powdered orange zest.

Starting on Maundy Thursday and going through Easter Monday, businesses, banks and government offices are only allowed to be open for certain hours on Maundy Thursday, Easter Saturday and Easter Monday, and are closed entirely on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Similar to the U.S., Holy Communion is celebrated on Maundy Thursday to commemorate the Last Supper. However, while Good Friday in the U.S. is usually a somber day, Finns celebrate Good Friday with sacred music concerts. The most attended concerts are The Passion of St. Matthew and The Passion of St. John. These concerts attract so many tourists and non-members that some churches have to make special arrangements to ensure there is enough room for their members to attend! In addition, the traditional Easter play, Via Crucis, "The Way of the Cross," is performed on Good Friday and wanders all over Helsinki.

Easter Saturday brings two traditions steeped in the old pagan beliefs that evil spirits and witches roam the countryside doing mischief on that day. In the first, Finnish children make fun of the evil witches by acting like "good witches," wearing colorful, old, baggy clothes and headscarves, painting freckles and rosy cheeks on their faces, and decorating birch twigs with feathers and crepe paper. They roam around knocking on neighbors' doors, casting "good spells" and asking for candy or money to be put in their copper pots in exchange for a decorated twig. The little witches recite the traditional poem of "Viron, varvon, tuoreeks terveeks, televaks vuodeks: vitsa sulle, palkka mulle!" In English this means, "I wave a twig for a fresh and healthy year ahead: a twig for you, a treat for me!" (In some parts of Finland, this tradition is performed on

Palm Sunday instead of Easter Saturday.)

The second Easter Saturday tradition is the enjoyment of large bonfires that were once used to keep all the mischievous spirits and witches away, but now gather communities together. For some, the bonfire parties include music and poetry and other festivities.

Although many Finns attend church services on Easter Sunday, many more will attend the special Passion plays about the life of Jesus performed on city streets. Families also gather to share their Easter dinners of traditional lamb and other Easter specialty dishes.

Easter Monday, also called Second Easter Day, is a public holiday with most businesses, government offices and schools closed. It is a day to rest and enjoy the outdoors — and dream about upcoming spring and summer plans.

And speaking of spring....

Duluth's Järvenpää Chapter of the Minnesota Finnish American Historical Society welcomes you to celebrate spring at their upcoming Vappu Dance Sunday, April 30, from 1-4 p.m. Held at the AAD Shriner's Building at 5152 Miller Trunk Highway in Hermantown, the dance will feature music by the Mae Prachar Band. Admission is $10 for adults (free for children under age 16), and coffee and pulla is included. Everyone is invited to come and enjoy the dancing, conversations and Finnish music! Everyone can learn the basic steps of old time dances. This is a wonderful way to also celebrate Finland's 100 years of independence! Questions? Contact Alyce at 218-720-4435.

To discover and help plan other "FinnFun" events and celebrations for upcoming months, especially those celebrating Finland's 100th, I encourage you to attend one of the following meetings of local Finnish groups.

• The Ladies of Kaleva Väinnöttären Tupa #24 in Cloquet are meeting at 2 p.m. April 19 at Thomson Town Hall.

• The Ladies of Kaleva Vellamon Tupa #4 in Ely will gather Tuesday, April 25. Contact Sally at 218-365-3928.

• Due to Easter week, the Knights and Ladies of Kaleva Pohjolaisen Maja #25 and Soinnuttaren Tupa #32 will meet at 6 p.m. April 27 at Kaleva Hall in Virginia.

• The Ladies of Kaleva Aallottaren Tupa #15, Duluth, will meet at 6 p.m. May 8 at Kenwood Lutheran Church in Duluth.

Are you planning ahead for interesting and educational summer activities? Keep the dates of June 23-25 on your calendar for Ely's Finnish Midsummer Weekend! (And if you want to help, the Ely Folk School is looking for crafters and people interested in exhibiting or teaching a class. Contact Jaime Brennan at 218-235-0138 or coordinator@elyfolkschool.org to volunteer, ask questions, or get a schedule of events.)

Summer also brings Salolampi Finnish Language Village! Registrations are now being taken for the summer sessions, and there are many opportunities still available for scholarships to help get kids (and adults) immersed in the Finnish language and lifestyle. Contact 1-800-222-4750 for more information.

To find up-to-the-minute news about these and many other upcoming activities throughout the Northland, the state and beyond, check out the Facebook pages of "Finland 100 Northland" and "Finland 100 Minnesota."

You won't want to miss the biggest celebration in Finland's history — Finland's 100th birthday!

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