Witches, Candy, and Willow Branches: <em>Virpominen</em> in Finland

Courtesy Elsa Säätelä

Growing up in Finland, Easter was always one of my favorite holidays. I remember spending the four-day weekend together with my family, playing outside in search of the first signs of spring, crafting Easter cards, and decorating eggs. But as a real sweet tooth, my favorite part of the festivities was virpominen, when all the children in the neighborhood dress up like trulli, or witches, and carry brightly-decorated willow branches door-to-door to wish "Happy Easter!" to their neighbors, receiving candies in return.

Most children recite a rhyme at the door:

Virvon, varvon, tuoreeks terveeks, tulevaks vuodeks; vitsa sulle, palkka mulle!
I wave a twig, for a fresh and healthy year ahead; a twig for you, a reward for me!
This is an very old rhyme with roots in the eastern parts of Finland, and several different versions exist today. Some are quite long, colorfully wishing you a bigger home, God in your soul, forthcoming Easter eggs, and even happy wishes for your cow. Living in a bilingual neighborhood—and probably because we were shy—my sister and I stayed away from any long recitations, and instead just handed out our homemade cards in exchange for chocolate eggs and jellybeans (that's us dressed in trulli costume above). This Finnish Easter witch-custom has grown out of two older traditions—a Russian Orthodox Easter ritual in which willow twigs represent the palms laid down before Jesus on Palm Sunday; and a Swedish and Finnish tradition in which children made fun of earlier fears that evil witches roamed around on Easter weekend. Around my hometown Vasa, in western Finland, Easter bonfires are also still a common sight, though for the plain purpose of getting rid of excess wood, not to scare off witches.