Walpurgis Night Is Upon Us

Walpurgis night (Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish and Vappu in Finnish), is a great celebration in Sweden and Finland.

The tradition comes from Germany and celebrates of the 8th century abbess Saint Walpurga. (St. Walpurga inspired Walburga Black, one of the witches in the Harry Potter series of children’s books.)

Since the Middle Ages the last day of April has been regarded as the end of winter and the start of summer. In German and Nordic folklore it was believed that during this change, evil spirits were let loose (similar to the celebration of Halloween to mark the change from summer to winter). Germans lit big fires in an attempt to scare away the evil spirits, and this tradition spread to Sweden during the 16th century.

Walpurgis bonfire in Stockholm Photo credit: Mats Lindfors/ webbkusten

Other traditions of the bonfire might be even older when at the end of April it was common to let the livestock out on the fields and fires were lit to scare the wild animal away.

Regardless of the origin of the Walpurgis celebrations, today it is regarded as a welcoming of spring in both Finland and Sweden and is also closely tied to student traditions where Walpurgis is a day of freedom. Most of the exams are over and the school year is coming to an end (most every teacher can tell you that this is the time of year when their students get extra antsy because the end of the year is coming up). Students put on their white student caps and sing songs welcoming spring, to the budding greenery, and to a brighter future.

Students from the Technical University in Helsinki put the student cap on Havis Amanda Photo credit: https://glasgowuniversityabroad1112.wordpress.com

In Finland the celebration begins in the afternoon and in Helsinki it officially starts with the capping of the Havis Amanda statue at the Market Square (similar ceremonies take place in other cities as well). People toast with champagne and wish each other ‘Glada Vappen’ (Finland Swedish) or Hauskaa Vappua (Finnish).

The celebration goes on all night and continues until the morning of May 1st where the parks are filled with people having champagne picnics. During the day the city is filled with flowers, balloons, whistles and parades and other events are held around town. Aside from champagne, it is popular to drink Sima (homemade mead – learn to make your own mead) and eat tippaleipä (funnel cake). You can get a recipe for tippaleipä here or watch how to make it:

Boat racing on Fyrisån in Uppsala
Photo credit: https://sfquppsala.wordpress.com/

In the Swedish university cities Lund and Uppsala the last day of April is one of the biggest events of the year.  Early in the morning, students go to the parks where they have picnics and usually drink large amounts of alcohol. Concerts areorganized in the parks and in Uppsala a boat race is arranged on the river “Fyrisån.” The boats are built by groups of students and the boat race is one of the biggest attractions of the Valborg celebration in Uppsala. Thousands of people watch as close to 300 colorful, and often not very well crafted, boats head down the river. It is not unusual to see a few of them capsize or sink, so if you want to participate you best be prepared for a cold swim.

In the evening of Walpurgis people gather around publically arranged bonfires. A speech welcoming spring is given and followed with choirs singing songs celebrating the coming spring. One of the most popular songs is “Längtan till landet.” When you see the first verse of the song you see how happy the Swedes are that the long and dark winter has come to an end:

Vintern rasat ut bland våra fjällar,
drivans blommor smälta ned och dö.
Himlen ler i vårens ljusa kvällar,
solen kysser liv i skog och sjö.

Winter stormed out among our mountains,
snow drifts melt down and die.
The sky smiles in spring’s bright evenings
The sun kisses life into the forest and lake.

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