HELSINKI – The witches are out, but don't despair. Instead of casting evils spells, they wish you well, although you'd better have some chocolate or candy handy just in case.
Every year before Easter, small colorful witches appear on Finnish doorsteps in a blend of eastern and western religious traditions related to spring. They hand over catkin branches, reciting healthy wishes in exchange for payment that is traditionally chocolate or other candies.
"A twig for you, a treat for me!" 8-year-old sorcerer Isara chants, waving her magic catkin wand decorated with colored paper strips and feathers. In exchange, the red-and-black spotted-faced witch eagerly receives a handful of chocolate eggs, which she stuffs into a copper coffee pot.
"The most important thing are the sweets," her 8-year-old friend Linda said Sunday, swishing her catkin branch.
On the northeastern periphery of Europe, the Finnish version of trick-or-treat reflects the Nordic country's straddling of East and West, combining the Russian Orthodox tradition of blessing cattle and farms with branches of pussy willow and the Swedish custom of dressing up as witches before Easter.
On Palm Sunday, little girls don long, flowing skirts and wrap bright scarves around faces freckled with soot and red spots.
Ethnologists say Finland's Easter practices came from the eastern region of Karelia, where Russian traditions were strong even when it was a part of Finland. Farmers in Karelia for centuries have taken pussy willows in lieu of palm leaves to their neighbors on Palm Sunday as a gesture of blessing.
The tradition of children dressing up as witches came to Finland from Sweden, where since the early 19th century they went door-to-door with drawings that were exchanged for treats.
Finland, which shares a 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) border with its huge eastern neighbor Russia, was a semi-autonomous grandy ducy in the Czarist Empire for a century before gaining independence in 1917. Before that, Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom for seven centuries.
But it wasn't until the 1970s that the two traditions blended, with witches reciting a rhyme wishing good health for all in the household, reminding them of their duty to repay them with Easter eggs or other treats.
Today's witches, instead of traditional scarves, often wear pointed witch hats in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Some even don masks, aping Halloween costumes.