March 24, 2013

The Magic Easter Garter

Good Friday is coming up, which means Tony and I will run around the house and strike all our furniture with a piece of wood. Preferably, we should do this at noon. This is something that Tony's grandmother used to do, so we carry on the tradition the best we can. I'm not quite sure why we're supposed to do this on Good Friday. I think his grandmother mentioned scaring out the evil spirits, which sounds good to me. 

I'm writing about this not because it has any particular connection to New England folklore (his grandmother was Italian-American and from New Jersey), but as an example of the interesting folk practices that have become attached to the Easter season. Everyone is familiar with the Easter bunny and egg hunts, the most widespread American folklore associated with this holiday, but there are definitely some other curious traditions out there in the world.

In Sweden, little girls dress like witches at Easter-time and travel door-to-door, begging for candy. It sounds a lot like Halloween to me, but the Swedes claim that witches actually gather together before Easter to cause trouble. Are people buying them off by giving them candy? In neighboring Norway it is traditional to read mystery novels at Easter. Publishers release new mysteries the week before Easter, and most TV stations show mysteries.

Easter witches, from this site.

In Latin America and some Mediterranean countries people build bonfires and burn effigies of Judas Iscariot, while in Slovakia and the Czech Republic men traditionally spank or whip women on Easter Monday, a practice that supposedly maintains the women's beauty. The next day women retaliate by pouring buckets on cold water on men. I don't know if that makes the men look better, or just makes the women feel better.

All those examples are just a preface to this little piece of Easter love magic I found in Fanny Bergen's Current Supersitions (1896). Ms. Bergen collected this piece of foklore from an informant in Salem, New Hampshire:

Knit a garter and color it yellow. Don it on Easter Day. Wear it for a year. The wearer will be engaged before the year is out. 

The 19th century was ripe with love spells like this one, and they were associated with all kinds of holidays: Easter, Halloween, May Day, Midsummer's Day. After the Industrial Revolution people used magic less for life-and-death matters and more in those other domains where they felt powerless, like romance. Can't get the farmer down the street to give you a second look? Make a magic Easter garter and not only will he give you a look, he'll even propose.

I don't know where the tradition came from, but an informant from Maryland also told Ms. Bergen something similar. I assume it died out when people stopped wearing garters. If anyone knows anything else about the magic Easter garter please get in touch!

No comments: