Looking back on ScanFair 2023…and witches

by Rhonda Erlandson

It’s Hej så länge to another Portland Scan Fair! Now we find ourselves only hours away from our own Christmas family gatherings. As a child, Christmas Eve at my Swedish immigrant grandparents’ home was the highlight of the year with only Midsommar coming in a close second place. In my young mind, the revelry, sights & smells of Farmors elegant julbord were eclipsed only by the presents under the tree, mysteriously spirited in by tomtegubben and his faithful julbock companion. Now, so many decades later, I still bring aspects of the old Swedish Jul to my home, mostly with family relics lovingly passed down to me. But my efforts will never compare with those genuine juletider that my grandparents brought from the Old Country.

For me these days, the thrill of an old-fashioned Scandinavian Christmas kicks off with Nordic Northwest’s annual ScanFair. In this time-honored Christmas market, I immerse myself in traditional music (the fiddle and nyckelharp are my favorites), food, folk costumes, dancing, and crowning the Lucia Bride. Vendors, many of whom are descendants of Scandinavian ancestors, dazzle me with the old arts of Nordic jewelry making, weaving, and rosemalings.

At the Swedish Roots in Oregon table, we displayed several panels from our 2019 exhibit, “From Sweden to Oregon” and we sold unique pieces of original art as well as the books our organization has published. These two days at ScanFair are an important fundraiser for SRIO to help further our efforts toward researching and publishing the stories of Swedish immigrants in Oregon. However, as much as we need and appreciate the sales, SRIO board members agree that the most valuable aspect of our organization’s presence at ScanFair is interacting with the hundreds of people who stop by our table to talk about their own Swedish heritage. SRIO President David Anderson sums it up perfectly: “Talking with people is my favorite part of Scan Fair. Finding out where their ancestors came from and if they have any old photos we might be able to use or stories that we can help tell. If they don’t know where their ancestors came from, the question is then, Can SRIO Help?! The display panels help catch peoples’ attention and then we can ask questions!”

Assisting people in tracing their Swedish roots is SRIO’s specialty. We excel in building family trees and in fact, an artist on our Board provided beautiful four-generation family trees in original watercolor that we offered for sale this year. One of the most captivating conversations I had along the lines of family heritage was with a woman who had questions about her Swedish ancestral home in Älvdalen. The name of this municipality literally translates to “River Valley” and is located in the northwesterly portion of Dalarna with a population of around 2,000. Although modern Swedish is spoken there today, its indigenous language is Elfdalian which preserves many of the old Norse characteristics that have ceased to exist in other Nordic languages. Today there are efforts to preserve the Elfdalian dialect and pass it along to future generations.

The woman of Elfdalian descent who stopped by the SRIO table told me her greatest grandmother that she knows of was executed for witchcraft. According to family lore, her ancestor was burned at the stake; however, historical sources reveal that witches were invariably killed before their bodies were destroyed by fire. The woman and I spoke briefly of the witches – and other skeletons – in our family trees that surprise and delight us even as we shrink from the horror our forebears must have endured. Later that evening, as I relaxed after a full day of volunteering at our table, I went online to browse the history of witch-hunting in Scandinavia. Several accounts provide an overview of what happened throughout Sweden, even in the relatively cosmopolitan city of Stockholm, but mostly in Northern Sweden and in the southwestern province of Bohuslän. Sorcery was criminalized in Sweden as early as 1350 but the first execution wasn’t recorded until 1550. The old fourteenth century law was replaced with an updated Witchcraft Act in 1608 and with that, the first notable witch hunts began and continued forward in the 1610s.

Although Sweden was among the least affected by witch hunts throughout Europe, its most notorious hysteria occurred in 1668 with Det stora oväsendet, which translates as The Great Noise. The panic resulted in nearly 300 executions and continued for eight years until 1676. The witch hunt started when a church pastor in Älvdalen (you’ll recall this is the area of my 2023 ScanFair customer’s ancestry) interrogated a young shepherd girl. The grilling by this most fearsome member of her parish led the girl to accuse a woman in her neighborhood of witchcraft. From this single accusation, the hysteria increased and resulted in a large trial in the city of Mora in Dalarna in 1668. Seventeen people were sentenced to death for witchcraft and 148 children were whipped or otherwise punished for allowing themselves to be influenced by the witches. The great witch hunt in Sweden spread from parish to parish and to parts of Finland. By the time the hysteria came to a government-ordered end in the early 1700s, 400 (some sources say 500) people had been executed.

When I shared this story with SRIO President David Anderson, he told me of his own ancestors caught up in the terror of witch hunts. David is descended from Olaus Laurentii (1543-1607) who was Bishop of Gagnef in Dalarna and whose wife was reportedly accused of being a witch. It seems the torment followed David’s ancestors to America where his ancestor Mary Towne Estey (1634-1692) was convicted of witchcraft and hanged in Salem, Massachusetts.

Well, largely due to my penchant for digressing, what started as reminiscing and celebrating ScanFair evolved into a rather gruesome denouement. Nevertheless, the story inspired by the woman who visited SRIO’s ScanFair table illustrates the fascinating history we find when we meet and visit with people who are interested in their family’s personal saga. As always, SRIO would love to go along for the ride whenever you’re ready to share your own Swedish heritage.

God jul och god forsättning till er alla

från Swedish Roots in Oregon!

Note: most of the information on the history of witchcraft in Sweden is taken from Witch trials in Sweden – Wikipedia

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