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Pickled herring
Pickled herring is a Swedish delicacy and there are many ways to pickle and flavour herring. It is served during most traditional holidays like Easter, Midsummer and Christmas.
Photo credit: Matilda Lindeblad/Johnér/imagebank.sweden.se

Swedish Easter – a joyous foodie feast

Sweden’s Easter festivities involve a rich smorgasbord of Swedish food, sweet treats and decorative crafts – as well as unique customs shaped by the country’s cultural heritage.

Marking the arrival of spring, Easter is celebrated with gusto in Sweden. Tables are laid smorgasbord-style, brimming with Swedish food spanning egg dishes, lamb, herring and salmon as well as more recent vegan alternatives. Easter is also associated with Swedish candy, particularly the pick and mix variety so cherished by locals.

Since 1844, Swedish Easter has been celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar. Until the1970s it was observed as a religious event, with stores, banks and cinemas shutting on Good Friday in recognition of the crucifixion of Christ. In recent decades, it’s been largely secularised, yet incorporating a blend of Christian, folkloric and Old Norse traditions. The result is a rather unique celebration that starts on Maundy Thursday and runs until Easter Monday – with Holy Saturday marked as the main day (and evening) for festivities.

Easter witches

A Swedish Easter tradition is to dress up as colourful Easter witches. The children knock on doors to wish residents Happy Easter and get some sweets in exchange for homemade Easter cards.

Photo: Jenny Drakenlind/Johnér/imagebank.sweden.se

Here comes the Easter witch – seeking Swedish candy

One of the quirkiest seasonal ingredients is the ‘påskkärring’ – Easter witch – who take to the streets in groups, knocking on doors to wish residents ‘Glad påsk’ (Happy Easter) and have sweets in exchange for a home-made drawing or Easter letter. This custom – rather like a less menacing version of “trick or treat” – takes place either on Maundy Thursday or Holy Saturday. According to folklore, a witch-like character flew on a broom to the mythical island of ‘Blåkulla’ on Good Friday to mingle with the devil, returning on Easter Day.

Swedish children started dressing up as Easter witches in the early 19th century in western parts of the country, and over the decades the tradition spread nationwide, remaining popular until this day. The costume is a decidedly random affair – children tend to raid attics for old scarves to tie around their heads, mismatching these with colourful dresses and aprons. Faces are painted with bright red cheeks and freckles.

Swedes are big on sweets, particularly around Easter. Enter any supermarket and you’ll find people of all ages enthusiastically scooping fizzy strawberry laces, rainbow-coloured jelly eggs or vegan lemon toffee into paper bags or in decorative paper eggs, shared between family members and friends. These symbols of the season start appearing in stores in the lead-up to Easter. Some feature classic Easter motifs like farmyard scenes studded with hares and chickens, while others are more contemporary. As for what goes inside these reusable eggs, you’ll mostly find pick and mix but also chocolate and marzipan. Upon opening the egg, the recipient may find a token present, akin to a stocking-filler.

Other customs, mainly in the southwestern parts of the country, include Easter bonfires – ‘påskbrasor’ – lit on Holy Saturday to fend off evil spirits (Easter witches included) said to be at large during the crucifixion of Christ. The first recording of these fires dates to the 19th century when Dutch merchants introduced the custom to Gothenburg.

Candy kings

Gummies, licorice, hard candy, and chocolate. Swedes belong to the world elite in eating sweets. Statistics show that the average Swede consumes 15 kilos of sweets in a year. Easter is the culmination, a weekend during which the average Swede consumes a kilo of candy.

Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

Swedish Easter craft to try at home

Swedish Easter brings out the craft enthusiast in many. Since the late 1800s, ‘påskris’ – the Easter equivalent of a Christmas tree – has been a common sight in Swedish homes in the lead-up to the holiday. Mostly fashioned from long elegant birch twigs, this bouquet-like arrangement is adorned with colourful feathers, along with other types of decorations, such as handcrafted chickens made from yellow yarn.

Painting boiled eggs is another favourite activity. Let your creativity loose with watercolours or marker pens directly onto the eggshell. Alternatively, wrap un-boiled eggs in onion peel, securing them with a layer of tinfoil before boiling. The result is an egg beautifully marbled in different shades of rust and light brown.

These decorative eggs tend to take centre stage on the Easter table, piled up high. As for the general Easter table aesthetic, yellow is the colour of choice for napkins and tablecloths – possibly referencing the colour of chickens, or the egg-yolk from which they originate.

Easter craft

During Easter, many families get together to paint boiled eggs. The eggs are then served on the Easter table together with other traditional Easter food like pickled herring, salmon and lamb.

Photo: Jenny Drakenlind/Johnér/imagebank.sweden.se

The Swedish food associated with Easter

Easter has not always been the food fest it is today. Before the industrialisation of the 19th century, fresh produce was scarce following the long Swedish winter, resulting in somewhat spartan Easter meals based on pickled and preserved foods, primarily fish. Fast forward to the present day, the Swedish Easter table is laid with an array of delicious dishes, with increasing focus on organic and local produce. ‘Gubbröra’ – a Swedish egg salad with anchovies – is an Easter classic, which can also be made vegan.

‘Sill’, pickled herring, remains popular and comes in a range of variants, infused with spices, cloves and onion, or mustard. Salmon, either poached, fried or served chilled in cured (‘gravlax’) or smoked form, is also key, and so too ‘Janssons frestelse’ (Jansson’s temptation) – a gratin-like dish made from potatoes cut into strips and layered with onion and anchovies. ‘Västerbottenpaj’ – a quiche laden with extra mature Västerbotten cheese – a delicacy originally made in Burträsk, Norrbotten – is another popular staple.

Lamb entered the Swedish Easter table in the 20th century, drawing on ancient Jewish traditions as well as the biblical “Easter lamb”, which Jesus and his disciples gathered to eat on Maundy Thursday. From the 1930s, charcuterie products – Easter ham included – were added to the repertoire.

Moving with the times, the Swedish Easter buffet keeps evolving. Vegan options are becoming ever more popular, giving a modern slant to proceedings. ‘Gubbröra’, for instance, can be made vegan by replacing the chopped egg with mushroom and potato, adding red onion, chives and plant-based crème fraiche.

To drink, ‘snaps’ and ‘brännvin’ are traditional favourites, and taken shot-style. Many of Sweden’s breweries – of which there are nearly 400 – tend to release seasonal Easter beers, among them Jämtlands Bryggeri. ‘Påskmust’ is another staple – a dark brown soft drink infused with spices, malt and hop extract. You’ll also find this distinctive soda at Christmas, when it’s marketed as ‘julmust’. Comparing the two holidays, Easter ranks almost as highly as Christmas in terms of celebratory appeal – anyone who’s experienced the festivity of a Swedish Easter would agree.

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Cured salmon

Salmon is served at almost all traditional holidays in Sweden, such as Christmas, Midsummer and Easter. How the salmon is cooked varies though - it can be cured, smoked or grilled for example. It is often served with 'snaps', accompanied by a traditional drinking song.

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

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Cured salmon

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Västerbotten cheese tart

Photo: Jakob Fridholm/imagebank.sweden.se

Gubbröra on dill-pickled herring from Klädesholmen

Photo: Jakob Fridholm/imagebank.sweden.se

Easter eggs

Photo: Elliot Elliot/imagebank.sweden.se

Article sponsored by

EU and Swedish Board of Agriculture