My friend Anders is getting ready for the big Valborgsmässoafton celebration in Uppsala, Sweden tonight. It’s a holiday that I faintly remember being talked about by some of the elder family members when I was still a kid. One of my great-uncles told me that Valborgsmässoafton is sort of like Halloween except that it’s celebrated in the Spring.
Because our family had been trying to assimilate into American culture, our Swedish traditions were being forgotten. Meantime, I wish the family had tried to preserve our heritage, so anything remotely Swedish stirs up my curiosity, and Anders has become one of my favorite Internet friends.
In that Anders lives in a university city, Valborgsmässoafton is celebrated with enthusiasm and flair. A more urban flavor has been added to the holiday. Many parts of Sweden have continued the tradition of student spring fun in their efforts to celebrate the end of the long, dark Scandinavian winters.
In Uppsala, many of the students raft through the center of the city on makeshift rafts that are purposely rickety. Champagne and beer are consumed and sprayed around liberally, during the “Champagne Races”. Students and many other Uppsalans gather outside the Castle to sing and sometimes dance.
The current Swedish Valborgsmässoafton festivals go back to the Middle Ages as Christianized versions of ancient Nordic traditions. Midaeval governments’ administrative years ended on April 30th. That meant that the townsfolk, craftsmen, and merchants were in a celebratory mood. There was a lot of singing, dancing and trick or treating going on.
The mood was set for the ancient festival of May Day. Gigantic bonfires were ignited to ward off predatory animals and evil spirits. The celebrations were and are organized in an effort to promote community solidarity. The ancient Viking rituals were held to bring about the arrival of warmer weather and ensure fertility for livestock and crops.
As with many holidays, the ancient ones were supplanted with Christianized versions. The name, Walpurgis, derives from the 8th Century Catholic nun, Valborg. She was an outspoken critic of pagan practices, witchcraft, and sorcery. She was cannonized on May 1, 779. Just as All Hallows Eve precedes All Saints Day, in the Autumn, Walpurgis Eve precedes Walpurgis Day in the Spring.
Through the years, the ancient Nordic traditions meshed with the Catholic commemoration and became the blended Pagan-Catholic holiday that many Europeans enjoy. The present day customs are very much like those of Halloween. On the calendar, May Eve is directly opposite the date for Halloween. Anders tells me that the holiday is celebrated in much of the rest of Europe, too. Valborgsmässoafton is also known as Walpurgis Night, or May Eve in different countries. In Scandinavia, Valborgsmässoafton precedes Labor Day/May Day. The traditional May Eve events are enjoyed as the celebration of springtime. Some of the larger cities present historically accurate celebrations.
One year, Anders spent the holiday in Finland where it is called Vappu. Walpurgis Day is one of the four major holidays in that nation. It’s an excuse to hold large festivals and carnivals. There is plenty of drinking going on, too. As in Sweden, Finnish students are rowdy. The Finns imbibe a mead-like beverage and munch on fresh funnel cakes. Of course, many students begin their own celebrations several days earlier.
The German tradition celebrates Walpurgisnacht as a time when witches supposedly celebrate the arrival of Spring. The more traditional, original meanings of the holiday come through as pagans meet at or near Brocken Mountain in the Harz Range in north central Germany. The celebrants hold revels for their deities. Some areas of coastal Germany still light bonfires on the eve of May Day. In the South, halloween-like prankish behavior like spraying graffiti or throwing toilet paper on trees is common.
Isn’t it strange that the holiday has not been adopted and adapted to the commercialized, mass merchandising culture in America?
“But I must gather knots of flowers,
And buds and garlands gay,
For I’m to be Queen o’ the May, mother,
I’m to be Queen o’ the May.”