Apr 302014


Today is Walpurga’s Night or May Eve, the day before May Day. In this case “night” really does mean night, but “eve” signifies the day and night before, and not just the night before, although the waning hours are the most important. The word “eve” is confusing nowadays because it seems to mean “evening,” but it does not. Rather, it means “verge of,” hence, it can refer to the whole day. Many, many important festivals have events associated with their eve, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve being the most obvious. Often the eve of a saint’s day is concerned with some form of prognostication (see Eve of St Agnes, 20 Jan.). Others are times when the normal world order is temporarily suspended and, because of this, mystical beings have a chance to appear to mortals. All Hallows Eve (Hallowe’en) springs to mind (not coincidentally, 6 months from May Eve). Some of these customs have faded in the modern era, victims of the needs of industrialism and the general disenchantment of the world. But Walpurga’s Night survives in a great many countries in northern Europe.



In the mid to late 20th century many movements sprang up based on the belief that European folk customs, such as those associated with May Day, are survivals of ancient pagan (pre-Christian) ceremonies. Such belief is almost entirely founded on 19th century British and German social anthropology which was dominated by, and fed, the Romantic Movement. The most well known figure now from this era is Sir James George Fraser whose Golden Bough was, and is, extremely influential. But he had a slew of contemporaries such as Andrew Lang (famous in his day for his Fairy Books), and Edward Burnett Tylor who coined the term “survivals” for folk customs. These scholars have faded in importance in the academic world because their theories were deeply flawed, and based on shaky, or zero, primary evidence, that is, written documents from ancient times. Primary evidence simply does not exist in most cases, and we cannot construct robust theories with no data (although there seems to be an endless stream of people willing to try). We can categorize their work nowadays as wishful thinking. But, let me be clear. If you want to do all kinds of mystical things on May Eve, that’s just fine with me. The disenchantment of the modern world, that is, the loss of mystery in the popular mind in favor of the pragmatics of modern science and technology, is just dreadful. I celebrate everyone who wants to get dressed up, or drink too much, or cavort around a bonfire, or sing raucously, or whatever on May Eve. Done it all myself at one time or another. What gets my hackles up as a scholar who has spent decades in dusty archives researching old documents (I have two file cabinets stuffed with notes and photocopies), is the notion that these customs have their roots in the deep dark mysteries of pagan Europe. Show me the evidence and I will believe you. It does not exist.

I also want to point out that there are two quite distinct sets of customs associated with 1 May in Europe which tend to get muddled these days: the Celtic festival of Beltane, and the northern European/Germanic celebration of May Day. Obviously they are both spring festivals and so, naturally, share elements. But the central ethos of each is quite different. Maybe next year I’ll focus on Beltane. This year May Day holds sway.

The current festival is, in most countries that celebrate it or have celebrated it, named after the English missionary Saint Walpurga (c.710–777/9). Because Walpurga was canonized on 1 May (c. 870), she became associated with May Day, especially in northern Europe. The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurga’s night (Walpurgisnacht in German and Dutch, Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish, Vappen in Finland Swedish, Vappu in Finnish, Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö) in Estonian, Valpurgijos naktis in Lithuanian,Valpurģu nakts or Valpurģi in Latvian, čarodějnice and Valpuržina noc in Czech). In most of these countries Walpura’s Night celebrations have lapsed, are minor, or have transformed into different events. For example, in Germany there are still a few places where people play pranks and light bonfires, but in the big cities it is usually used as an occasion for left wing groups to rally in preparation for May Day. Finland and Sweden, however, still have major festivities.


In Finland, Walpurga’s Night/Day (Vappu) is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus). There are huge carnival-style festivals held in the streets of Finland’s towns and cities. The celebration, which begins on the evening of 30 April and continues to 1 May, typically centers on copious consumption of sima (recipe below), sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. Student traditions, particularly those of the engineering students, are one of the main characteristics of Vappu. Since the end of the 19th century, this traditional upper-class feast has been appropriated by university students. Many lukio (university-preparatory high school) graduates (who are, thus, traditionally assumed to be university bound), wear a cap. It is common to eat freshly cooked funnel cakes (name) along with sima, a mildly alcoholic lemonade.

In Helsinki and its surrounding region, fixtures include the capping (on 30 April at 6 pm) of the Havis Amanda, a nude female statue in Helsinki, and the biennially alternating publications of ribald matter called Äpy and Julkku, by engineering students of Aalto University. Both are juvenile; but while Julkku is a standard magazine, Äpy is always a gimmick. Classic forms have included an Äpy printed on toilet paper and a bedsheet. Often, the magazine has been stuffed inside standard industrial packages, such as sardine cans and milk cartons. For most university students, Vappu starts a week before the day of celebration. The festivities also include a picnic on 1 May, which is sometimes prepared in a lavish manner, particularly in Ullanlinnanmäki—and Kaisaniemi for the Swedish-speaking population—in Helsinki city.


Valborgsmässoafton bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. In Southern Sweden, an older tradition, no longer practiced, was for the younger people to collect greenery and branches from the woods at twilight. These were used to adorn the houses of the village. The expected reward for this task was to be paid in eggs.

Choral singing is a popular pastime in Sweden, and on Valborgsmässoafton virtually every choir in the country is busy. Singing traditional songs of spring is widespread throughout the country. The songs are mostly from the 19th century and were spread by students’ spring festivities. The strongest and most traditional spring festivities are also found in the old university cities, such as Uppsala and Lund, where undergraduates, graduates, and alumni gather at events that last most of the day from early morning to late night on April 30th, or siste april (“The Last Day Of April”) as it is called in Lund, or sista april as it is called in Uppsala. For students, Valborgsmässoafton heralds freedom. Exams are over and only the odd lecture remains before term ends. On the last day of April, the students wear their characteristic white caps and sing songs of welcome to spring, to the budding greenery and to a brighter future.

In Uppsala, since the mid-1970s, students honor spring by rafting on Fyrisån through the center of town with rickety, homemade, in fact quite easily wreckable, and often humorously decorated rafts. Several student groups also hold “Champagne Races” (Champagnegalopp), where students go to drink and spray champagne or somewhat more modestly priced sparkling wine on each other. The walls and floors of the old nation buildings are covered in plastic for this occasion, as the champagne is poured around recklessly and sometimes spilled enough to wade in. Spraying champagne is, however, a fairly recent addition to the Champagne Race. The name derives from the students running down the downhill slope from the Carolina Rediviva library, toward the Student Nations, to drink champagne.

In Linköping, the students and public gather at the courtyard of Linköping Castle. Spring songs are sung by the Linköping University Male Voice Choir, and speeches are made by representatives of the students and the university professors.

In Gothenburg, the carnival parade, The Cortège, which has been held since 1909 by the students at Chalmers University of Technology, is an important part of the celebration. It is seen by around 250,000 people each year. Another major event is the gathering of students in Trädgårdsföreningen to listen to student choirs, orchestras, and speeches. An important part of the gathering is the ceremonial donning of the student cap, which stems from the time when students wore their caps daily and switched from black winter cap to white summer cap.

In Umeå, there is a tradition of having local bonfires. During recent years, however, there has been a tradition of celebrating Valborgsmässoafton at Umeå University. The university organizes student choir songs, there are different types of entertainment and a speech by the president of the university. Different stalls sell hot dogs, candies, soft drinks, etc.

For Walpurga’s Night here are two traditional Finnish recipes, sima and tippaleivät (funnel cakes).




1 gallon water
3 large lemons
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup white sugar plus sugar for bottles
¼ tsp yeast
25 raisins


Bring the water to a steady boil. Meanwhile, use a lemon zester or a potato peeler to remove the outer yellow rind of 2 of the lemons in strips, placing these in a large glass or plastic (non-metal and heat-proof) container. Peel or trim off the bitter inner white rind of the lemons and discard. Slice the lemons and place in the container with the zest, adding brown and white sugar.

Once the water boils, pour it into the container with the lemons and sugar. Let it cool to lukewarm, then stir in yeast. Cover and allow to sit at room temperature for 24 hours, or until the surface begins to bubble.

Strain the liquid into clean glass bottles, quart jars, or plastic containers.

Slice the remaining lemon and add the slices plus 5-6 raisins and 1 teaspoon of sugar to each bottle. Seal tightly and refrigerate for 2-5 days, or until the raisins float.

Keep refrigerated and serve cool.

Yield: 4 quarts (about 20 servings).





2 eggs
1 tbsp sugar
1 cup milk
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
oil for frying


In a heavy pot or deep fryer, bring cooking oil to 375°F/190°C.

Whisk together the eggs and sugar lightly, then stir in the milk. Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt and stir until you have a smooth batter. Work quickly because once the liquid is added the baking powder is active.

Transfer the batter to a pastry tube with a small tip, or improvise with a freezer bag with the top sealed and a small holed snipped from one corner.

When the oil is hot, use one hand to dip a metal ladle in the oil until it is half filled. With your other hand quickly pipe the batter in a swirled, criss-crossed pattern into the ladle to make a bird’s nest. Lower the ladle completely into the oil. The fritter should immediately float to the top of the fryer. Allow the fritter to turn golden on the bottom and then flip it over with a slotted metal spoon to brown on the other side.

Remove the fritter with a slotted spoon and drain on a wire rack. You can work in small batches of 2 or 3 at a time. Sprinkle with powdered sugar and serve warm.