By Pamela E. Apkarian-Russell
April showers may bring May flowers, but in Sweden April also brings the witches that help celebrate Glad Pasque or Easter.
Mumming and guising are ancient traditions, which are part of the cultural heritage of many countries and take place usually as part of the celebration of feast days, holidays and gala events throughout the entire year. In Sweden the main time for such festivities is Easter-Pasque the time of the reawakening of the earth, the rites of spring.
Pasque is the time of the resurrection of the Deity and the earth. From prehistory on humankind was very aware of the importance of this time of the year as it was when the crops would be sown or soon thereafter. Sweden has a cold climate and welcoming of warmer days would have been very important in both an agricultural sense and as a social event.
How or why the tradition began of people (especially females dressing as witches and, later on, males as trolls) has been a topic of much conjecture, but it may have had to do with real witches and the festivals that they celebrated. Sweden and the Scandinavian countries, unlike much of Europe, did not participate in the Burning years fueled by the Inquisition. They may have been wary of the witch and afraid of them, but they considered them important parts of the community because of their healing and medicining powers.
By 1820 the mummers and guisers were already enjoying the Pask celebration at public gatherings. One hundred years later the customs had morphed to the point that parades and entertainments revolved about dressing as witches.
From the art work of the era, especially by people such as Jenny Nystrom, Ingebord Klein, Aetelius, Lasse, and Sigrun Steenhoff, the festival had blossomed into sending of cards and making funny, friendly type witches as gifts. Unfortunately, in modern times it is money that is often given rather than the traditional gifts of food and toys which were give years back.
Back in the 1880s children dressed as witches would open a person’s front door, toss in a handmade greeting-prosperity wish for the occupant, then flee before the person had a chance to catch them. They carried a broom just in case they got caught to stop anyone from unmasking them. After all the reason for guising was to hide so that no one knew who you were.
In Sweden it is a well known fact that witches adore coffee and eventually the witches would land on peoples’ homes they most wanted to have prosperity and happiness, brewed a nice pot of steaming hot black coffee and then when they had finished their rounds in a Santa Clause-like magical manner they flew off to the mountain Blakulla for dancing and feasting. Having a witch land on your roof meant your food would be tastier and you would not burn the carrots or the porridge in the pot! Having a witch land on your roof was similar to having the cranes nest on your roof in the Middle East. It meant you had been blessed. This was a protective blessing. Unlike the cranes or storks, Swedish witches didn’t stay long and they were quite apt to get tangled in the telephone wires or television antenna. No bird in flight would ever alight with such a thud or so gracelessly. If Emu could fly they would be like, “Oh Fie, you fly like an Ostrich in the sky!” Besides, they had many roof tops to visit and gallons of coffee to brew and drink all before they could fly off to Blakulla where the real heavy coffee drinking would begin as well as those cauldrons of stew to be consumed and brightly colored hard boiled eggs to be devoured.
With the Swedish emigration to America the kitchen witch had already been born. The figure of the protective beneficent witch migrated to the other Scandinavian countries especially Finland, then they spread in the guise of the Kitchen Witch which hangs in many a kitchen across those countries and to the lands those people migrated to such as Canada and America. One of the American potteries who carried the small hanging witch ornament to another dimension was Drinkwater, who made everything from cookie jars and spoon holders to bells and pitchers. Drinkwater is no longer in business but their grey pottery with blue and white decorative glaze is very collected with the cookie jar selling for $175, the spoon holder for $200 and the bell for $35. Craft shows have had artisans producing figures for years in various degrees of competency and artistic desirability and commercial success. The kitchen witch still pokes her funny long nose out in novelty shops and boutiques and remains an essential in gourmet kitchens where nothing is left to chance.
The sculptured art of the Pask hag is similar to the popular caricatured Pasque cards which celebrate the antics of this long and funny nosed witch. Though there are pretty witches, sexy witches, children witches, insipid vapid looking witches, and even animal witches especially chickens and hens, it is the stylized happy hag that remains the most popular. What is most interesting about contemporary depictions of witches is that the faces are not as interesting and hag like. They have been made doll like with bland faces that show no character or personality in a barbaric Barbie manner. Those that do follow the stylized witch tradition feature elderly hands and the barefooted witches have very large feet with toes detailed, prominent, and often bendable. These modern Easter witches sell for $10 to $50 each, depending on how detailed the costume and the sculpting of the figure. It is to be remembered that almost every woman in Sweden is a witch. Hence the saying “I am my own Kitchen Witch!” Many of the more insipid figures of bland doll like features, probably give-aways to the children who knock on doors asking for a treat, just as Celtic originating Halloween in our country has children guised asking for treats or in England the guised children asking for a penny for the Guy Nov. 5 Guy Fawkes day. Glad Pask parades are very popular for the youngest children to guise up.
However, non traditional costumes have been creeping in and it is not unusual to see a Darth Vader or aHarry Potter tottering along amidst the witches. The witches are referred to as paskkaringar or Easter Hags and the pasktroll or paskgrubbar are the troll figures. The Troll is not as we in the west have depicted him in tales but is more of a flower loving earth creature who husbands the forests and mountains. Centuries past the troll was to be feared and his underground den though loaded with treasure was to be avoided at all costs. He was more of the fairy tale ogre than he was benign, and was particularly active at Christmas and Easter. It was great luck to find one of his gems but he would pursue you for its return and to loose it was to loose ones luck. Later he melded in character and depiction with the troll who was a great lover of flowers and pretty things. Norwegian Trolls are nature lovers that strolled across the borders looking for greener grass and larger batches of wild flowers to play amidst. Again the troll’s noses are funny shapes but smaller in proportion to the creature. They weigh considerably more and have much larger bone structures than hags do.
The proboscis and chin were very easy to add to any guise by molding soft dough onto those protuberances. As the idea is to guise oneself this would be perfect to use with a mask and the witches scarf would help conceal the identity of the guisers. Food coloring for the hair or wigs and mops could leave even the closest of friends and neighbors wondering who the coffee pot carrying figure was.
Around 1900 when the postcard era was beginning to get into full swing Glad Pask cards began to be produced and the sending of these cards continues even today because it is so financially lucrative. These greetings are incredibly zany and comic in character. Not only do these witches send their beneficent greetings that your coffee never taste like dishwater and your stew never stick to the pan but they bring comic delight with them.
Witches are all for progress, they use modern conveniences such as rocket ships and airplanes that could only be propelled by magic. They often do all types of trapeze type contortions on their brooms when they are not crash landing, getting caught up in telephone wires, or some other outlandish incompetence. There is an amiable friendliness in these depictions rendering the chaos they create in both the sky and on terra firma as if everyone was resigned to the fact that this is just the perils that witches must live with.
Once they finally get to Blakulla and pay their entrance fee they can relax a tad, hobnob with other witches, eat, sing and dance. After all they have now done their job of preserving the kitchen till the same time the next year. One can only imagine that the mayhem that they create in the skies going is enhanced and recreated retuning to their roosts.
One of the most difficult parts of collecting Glad Pask cards is keeping track of them as they were produced in different sizes, often with the same image issued in four different sizes and some are now being reproduced in continental sizes as well.
The works of Curt Nystrom and his mother Jenny Eugenia Nystrom (June 13 or 15, 1854-Jan. 17, 1946), who is the most important of the Scandinavian artists, are being reprinted today. Jenny Nystrom’s influence on Scandinavian art is immense. Not only because of her use of color, but because of her many magical creatures such as elves, witches and gnomes have been depicted in such a light that they have become part of contemporary folk art by beginning a revival in the mythical life of Scandinavia.
The importance of Jenny Nystrom can not be emphasized sufficiently. Just about every contemporary of hers and every artist that followed including her son Curt were influenced by her. She can be considered the mother of the folk lore of Sweden and surrounding lands.
Born in Kalmar, Sweden she moved to Stockholm in 1946. In 1865 she went to art school and in 1873 she began her 8-year stay at the Royal Swedish Academy of Arts. The years 1882 through 1886 found her studying in Paris where she saw the intense frenzy of collecting postcards indulged in by both the French and the many foreign tourists. At age 33 she married a medical student named Daniel Stoopendaal. Unfortunately, he contracted tuberculosis and could not work. He became Jenny’s financial manager as she was the breadwinner for the family. He died of tuberculosis in 1927.
Her work was not only brilliantly inventive and beautifully executed, as she was classically educated in her art, but she was incredibly prolific. In her lifetime she produced over 3,000 post cards as well as 2,500 other items for books, posters, magazines, advertising brochures and paintings. Her illustrations appeared in all of the Scandinavian countries.
She is credited with not only bringing the Christmas tree to Sweden but with creating the Jultomte who is a cross between Santa and the Scandinavian gnomes. These creatures are so loved that people want them to come and live in their homes and on their property so badly that they place food outside for them and build houses for them on their property. She was the inspiration that created the art of these creatures just as she was the inspiration for the Easter Witches.
Nystrom’s humor is implicit in her work and bubbles over into the work of every artist who follows her creating both the Jultomte and the Pask Hags.
After she passed away at the age of 91, much of Nystrom’s work was donated to the Kalmar County Museum.
Jenny Nystrom’s work influenced not only the art of the Scandinavian countries but the myth and mystery of the holidays as well as the social history of those countries. It’s not surprising that her work is still being reproduced and can be found on everything from cookie tins to serving dishes. Her influence on The Easter Witches is not only manifold but her art work is the inspiration the “awen” of the creations as we know them today. Most of her work is signed and every now and then one finds them only with her JN initials. Her son Curt Nystrom continued the tradition of these holidays and the frolicsome beings and creatures.
With the Easter Witches it seems the more comical and hair-brained the antics of the Pask hags the more beloved they become to the senders of their cards. These are happy women having a great day out with the girls and their capers are sometimes even joined in by the entire family. Of course every witch has to have a familiar and cats often are shown acting in a Wainian manner like shooting bows and arrows off the back of a flying broom stick.
Prices on the postcards vary in price depending on the size of the card and the artist with Jenny Nystrom cards bringing the highest. Many of the cards are also collected by those who collect cats or fowl. The very deco style of Sigrun Steenhoff sell for about $30 and one needs to look closely at her work to see the subtle details of fairies and sprites that she is brewing into existence in her cauldron as in the illustration.
Because the American market has always been one size for cards, it has taken the American collector a while to groove into the different sizes, but many of the best images with the funkiest transportation vehicles only come in the small sizes. European collectors are used to the different sizes and because the images are very much in vogue the collectors here are finally getting over their original prejudice.
So if you see the paskkaringar fly by this Eastertide hope they alight on your roof and brew their brew and bring good luck to you.
Pamela Apkarian-Russell, aka the Halloween Queen, owns the Castle Halloween Museum near Wheeling, W.Va. A prolific freelance writer, she is an expert in holiday collectibles, a dealer, a collector and a public speaker. She may be reached at the Castle Halloween Museum.