Most Christians that predate the 19th century would have thought eating chocolate eggs to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ a little bit odd. That tradition didn’t gain popularity until the 1920s, so perhaps our own contemporary Easter customs could be deemed strange.
However, this list focuses on five other peculiar traditions from around the world that really highlight how different cultures celebrate the same period of time – some we’d quite like to try, and some we definitely wouldn’t!
1. Easter Witches: Finland
Decorated willow makes its first appearance on this page in Finland (and areas of Sweden as well) to symbolise the rebirth of spring. The symbology is based predominantly on the willow’s ability to thrive in soil saturated from the winter snow. These hardy branches are exchanged for candy by little kids dressed as witches.
We can see the tradition of Finnish witches as a sort of pagan, Christian mash-up: the willow tree has its spring roots firmly planted in pagan times, with the witches representing the evil spawned by Christ's betrayal on Maundy Thursday by Judas.
2. Easter Whipping: Czech Republic and Slovakia
Nothing says ‘Easter’ like intertwined willow branches adorned with colourful ribbons smacking the legs and buttocks of the local womenfolk. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it’s the menfolk who take on the role of flagellator, while the women (and girls) are the recipients of the ‘light’ willow-beating and/or a refreshing bucket of cold water. To add insult to injury they’re expected to reward the willow-swishing assailants with liquor, food, or money.
Apparently, the whipping is fertility-enhancing and derives from pagan traditions, a bit like animal sacrifice, though for many women and girls living in the region on Easter Monday, the concept of the latter is likely considered more tasteful.
3. Explosion of the Cart (Scoppio del Carro): Italy
We could give the entire page over to the shenanigans of the fun-loving Italians in and around Easter. For example, the Battle of the Oranges on Ash Wednesday, the Venice Carnevale before Shrove Tuesday, or the Viareggio Carnevale, four weeks prior to Lent. However, the Italians have undoubtedly saved one of the best celebrations for Easter Sunday.
The origins of Scoppio del Carro, which translates to the less romantic ‘Explosion of the Cart’, date back to 1099 when a young Florentine named Pazzino returned from the crusades with three flints from the holy sepulchre. This event was deemed remarkable enough to inspire today’s vibrant procession through the streets of Florence to the cathedral, culminating in the lighting (believed to be from the original flint) of a dove-shaped rocket, at exactly 11am.
The fiery dove-shaped rocket flies out of the cathedral and strikes an ornate, firework-packed, multi-story cart, parked outside in the square. Cue an enormous firework display and, after, a big long lunch. Perfetto!
4. Easter Crime: Norway
No, not in the sense that the residents of Norway get into some sort of Purge-like spree. Instead, Easter is typified by the consumption of crime stories (Påskekrim). It’s a national obsession that has nothing to do with Christianity or paganism whatsoever. In fact, for a phenomenon that was only inspired about 100 years ago, it’s seized the public imagination in a remarkably short space of time.
In 1923, the headline ‘Bergen train looted in the night’ was published in Norway’s largest circulating newspaper. The country has one of the lowest crime rates in the world so its residents were gripped by the story. However, it was simply a marketing stunt dreamt up by two young authors, Nordahl Grieg and Nils Lie, to sell their latest true crime novel.
The stunt worked, and then some. Crime, whether it's a novel, TV show, or movie, is as synonymous with Easter in Norway as the chocolate-derived ‘I feel sick’ is in the rest of Europe.
5. San Pedro Cutud Lenten Rites: Philippines
Before we get stuck in, this entry deals with crucifixion, albeit a watered-down version because no one dies after three days dangling from adjacent lumps of wood. However, crucifixion isn’t known for its subtly, so reader discretion is advised.
The Philippines has more Catholics than any other country in Asia and, while this practice is frowned upon by the Vatican, every year on Good Friday as many as nine people volunteer to be ‘crucified’ in Barangay San Pedro Cutud of San Fernando City in Pampanga.
The event allegedly started in 1962 by a quack doctor who claimed to be able to heal the sick. It is a full-on passion play, complete with Roman Guards and a solemn re-enactment of the trudge to calvary. They are accompanied by dozens of men and a few women, crawling on all fours and self-flagellating with sharpened bamboo canes, drawing blood, as they journey to the place of crucifixion.
Once there, the penitents, have five-inch nails driven through their palms and feet onto the cross where they are left for five to ten minutes before being taken down. One such devotee, a local construction worker called Ruben Enaje, has been 'crucified' 33 times.
It’s worth noting that while the devotees are nailed to the cross (through their palms and not the wrists) their arms are supported by strips of cloth and, crucially, they can bear their weight by standing on a ledge. Despite the enormous pain, this makes the process relatively safe, assuming the nails are sterile. Still, it’s most certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Chocolate bunny, anyone?