Originally Posted Online: March 17, 2013, 10:44 pm
Last Updated: March 18, 2013, 10:41 am

Scandinavian Easter offers colorful traditions

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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

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Photo: Paul Colletti
Jessica Gianulis and her daughter, Gia, 2, appear to have a different appreciation of the accordion music that Lee Ann Carlson plays during the Scandinavian Easter workshop in Rock Island on Sunday, March 17, 2013. The Scandinavian music that Ms. Carlson played was part of the annual event held at First Lutheran Church where adults and children could learn about Scandinavian heritage and make traditional Scandinavian Easter decorations. Ms. Carlson's performance brought a round of applause - even from Gia.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
After arranging the branches of her Easter tree Ellis Hughes decorates the sticks with ribbon and ornaments at First Lutheran Church in Rock Island on Sunday, March 17, 2013. Children and adults took part in the Scandinavian Easter workshop where they could create the seasonal decorations and learn to speak Swedish words.
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Paul Colletti
Melissa Hebert-Johnson uses wheat stalks to fashion an ornament during the Scandinavian Easter workshop held at First Lutheran Church in Rock Island on Sunday, March 17, 2013. Dozens attended the workshop where they made Easter trees and decorated them in the Scandinavian tradition.

ROCK ISLAND -- Sunday was a mini-United Nations kind of day for Elizabeth Russell and her kids.

On St. Patrick's Day, the Irish Catholic mother from Rock Island brought her 11-year-old daughter Siobhan and 19-year-old son Zac to the annual Scandinavian Easter workshop at First Lutheran Church. Zac spent a good amount of time helping the church get ready for that night's Italian-themed Feast of St. Joseph, celebrating the husband of the Virgin Mary.

"It's kind of crazy," Ms. Russell said, noting she's come to the Scandinavian party -- which features a lot of arts and crafts to celebrate the holy season -- for many years."I like everything about it. I like the ornaments, that it's family friendly. It's multi-generational, great music. The really tasty Semlor buns."

Siobhan came to the event already dressed as an Easter witch, with her friend Daityn Duffy. "They were really excited. They're kind of helping the other kids," Ms. Russell said. "It's fun; they really enjoy it a lot."

On Good Friday, children in Sweden dress like Paskkaringar (Easter witches), going door to door shouting "Happy Easter" and often receiving treats. There were costumes out Sunday for kids to wear as a witch; then they could get their picture taken, printed and glued to the back of a passport.

"It was a time witches would sweep out old sin and clean house,"workshop organizer Helene Leaf, of Moline, said of the ancient tradition.

At the church Parish House, everyone got a pale blue passport that was stamped as you completed crafts activities at different tables. One was decorating branches with feathers, ribbons and animals (including chicken and egg) made from construction paper. Traditionally, these branches were used to wake people up on Fettisdagen (Fat Tuesday), the Tuesday before Lent. According to ancient beliefs, the birch branches were thought to hasten the arrival of spring.

"It's to show the resurrection," Ms. Leaf said. "You take a dead branch, decorate it, and the leaves come out. This is the time of year, you need something colorful."

She is a board member of the American Scandinavian Association, a club based at Augustana College which puts on the free Rock Island event.

In addition to making Easter cards, people Sunday also created straw ornaments, heart baskets and other ornaments for Christmas trees, and heard Swedish songs played on accordion. They also sampled Semlor (Easter buns), which are made from sweet yeast bread with cardamom, cut in half, filled with almond paste and whipped cream and eaten on Fat Tuesday, "How can you go wrong with that?" asked Ms. Leaf.

"It's a fun family event," she said, noting it's always on the Sunday before Palm Sunday. "It so happens to turn out to be St. Patrick's Day. This is a very good turnout."

Students from Augustana College (which has its own strong Swedish tradition) taught Swedish words -- including numbers to 10 and how to say "Hello, my name is..." -- and simple folk dances.

"We wanted to help the community," said Greg Larson, an Augustana sophomore from Naperville who's Swedish on his father's side and studied the language at school last year. "We all love Swedish. It's important to enjoy the heritage and culture."

Mike Pace, of Bettendorf, who's Norwegian by background, attended the event for the first time, on a suggestion from his wife, Mindy. They've been to Norwegian festivals in Stoughton, Wis., near Madison.

"The kids had just started asking questions about Scandinavia," Mrs. Pace said.

"I love the Swedish trees. When you're looking at a tradition such as this, you're taking something that's dead and giving it new life, celebrating life," Mr. Pace said, noting he brought his children, Wesley, 15, Francine, 11, and Rebekah, 8. "The cornerstone is having them exposed to another culture, other traditions.This is really good.

Scandinavia is composed of the nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. "The cultures are very similar. The traditional dress is very similar," Mr. Pace said. "I think there's more similarities than there are differences."

The overall Easter message of resurrection and new life is the same across continents and traditions, "but the expressions are totally different," he said.

Lee Ann Carlson, of Moline -- who has played accordion for 50 years -- entertained families with Swedish songs. She's served on the board for the local American Swedish Association for eight years.

She told stories of her paternal grandfather, who had been in the Swedish Navy and would cry when she played "Over the Waves." He was a blacksmith, immigrated to the U.S. in 1905 and moved to the Quad-Cities because of John Deere (who was also a blacksmith), to work in mining.

Ms. Carlson said the Easter workshop is vital not only to keep the country's traditions alive, but also to help promote the work of the Scandinavian Association, which has more than 200 members in the area.

Upcoming association events at First Lutheran include a Scandinavian Arts Fest May 18-1, and the Midsummer and Jenny Lind Concert in June. For more information, call Jill Seaholm at 309-794-7204.