What is Walpurgis night?

It’s 6 pm on the 30th of April in Helsinki. People are gathering around "Havis Amanda", a hundred year old nude female statue on the Market Square. They all watch in awe as the statue is being washed and a student hat is placed on her head.

In Sweden people gathers as well. But instead of a statue they gather around a big pile of dried woods. When darkness falls, the pile is lit on fire and people watch the fire as a choir joins in and start singing.

No, this is not some strange sect. This is the yearly Walpurgis night celebration.

Walpurgis night, or Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish and Vappu in Finnish, is a big festivity in Sweden and Finland. The tradition derives from Germany and is a celebration of the 8th century abbess Saint Walpurga in Germany. Ever since the Middle Ages the last day of April has been regarded as the end of winter and the start of summer. In old German and Nordic folklore it was believed that during this shift, evil spirits were let loose (the same belief can be seen in the celebration of Halloween in other cultures, which marks the shift between summer year and winter year). To scare away the evil spirits, Germans lit big fires and this tradition spread to Sweden during the 16th century.

1Walpurgis bonfire in Stockholm
Photo credit: Mats Lindfors/ webbkusten

But historians claim that the tradition of the bonfire might be even older, and actually originate from the Celtics. During the end of April it was common to let your livestock out on the fields and the fires were lit to scare the wild animal away.

Regardless of the origin of the Walpurgis celebrations, it is today regarded as a welcoming of spring in both Finland and Sweden and is also closely tied to student traditions.

For students, Walpurgis is a day of freedom. Most of the exams are over and the school year is coming to an end. The students put on their white student caps and sing songs to welcome spring, to the budding greenery and to a brighter future.

2Students from the Technical University in Helsinki put the student cap on Havis Amanda during the Vappu celebrations.
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 statue (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).

3Turku, Finland on 30th of April.
Photo credit: https://glasgowuniversityabroad1112.wordpress.com

The celebration goes on all night and continues until the morning of 1st of May where people meet in the parks for champagne picnics. Aside from champagne, it is popular to drink Sima (homemade mead) and eat tippaleipä (funnel cake). During the day the city is filled with flowers, balloons, whistles and May day whisk as parades and other events are being held around town.

In the Swedish university cities Lund and Uppsala the last day of April is one of the biggest events of the year.

4The Ekonomikum park in Uppsala on Valborg
Photo credit: https://glasgowuniversityabroad1112.wordpress.com

The students head to the parks early in the morning where they eat picnics and usually drink outrages amounts of alcohol. Concerts are organized in the parks and in Uppsala a boat race is arranged on the river "Fyrisån" that runs through the center of the city. Each boat is built by groups of students and the boat racing has become one of the biggest attractions of the Valborg celebration in Uppsala. More than 30 000 people come to watch as around 300 colorful, and often not very well crafted, boats tries to make it down the river. It is not uncommon that a few of them capsize or sink along the way, so if you want to participate you better be prepared for a cold swim.

5Boat racing on Fyrisån in Uppsala
Photo credit: https://sfquppsala.wordpress.com/

Walpurgis is a public event rather than a family celebration, and in the evening people gather around publically arranged bonfires. A speech is usually held to welcome the spring followed by choirs singing songs to celebrate the coming spring. One of the most popular songs is “Längtan till landet”, and to get an understanding how happy the Swedes are that the long and dark winter has come to an end, you can read the first verse of the song with an English translation.

Vintern rasat ut bland våra fjällar,
Winter stormed out among our mountains,
drivans blommor smälta ned och dö.
snow drifts melt down and die.
Himlen ler i vårens ljusa kvällar,
The sky smiles in spring’s bright evenings
solen kysser liv i skog och sjö.
The sun kisses life into the forest and lake.

The students go on to celebrate all night, and in the morning most of Uppsala’s and Lund’s parks looks like this:

6The city park in Lund after the celebrations
Photo credit: Albin Brönmark/sydsvenskan