The festival is named after Saint Walburga (known in Scandinavia as “Valborg”; alternative forms are “Walpurgis”, “Wealdburg”, or “Valderburger”), born in Wessex in 710. She was a niece of Saint Boniface and, according to legend, a daughter to the Saxon prince St. Richard. Together with her brothers she travelled to Frankonia, Germany, where she became a nun and lived in the convent of Heidenheim, which was founded by her brother Wunibald. Walburga died on 25 February 779 and that day still carries her name in the Catholic calendar. However she was not made a saint until 1 May in the same year, and that day carries her name in the Swedish calendar.
Historically the Walpurgisnacht is derived from Pagan spring customs, where the arrival of spring was celebrated with bonfires at night. Viking fertility celebrations took place around April 30 and due to Walburga being declared a saint at that time of year, her name became associated with the celebrations. Walburga was honored in the same way that Vikings had celebrated spring and as they spread throughout Europe, the two dates became mixed together and created the Walpurgis Night celebration.
In Germany, Walpurgisnacht, the night from April 30 to May 1, is the night when allegedly the witches hold a large celebration on the Blocksberg and await the arrival of Spring.
“Walpurgis Night (in German folklore) the night of April 30 (May Day’s eve), when witches meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with their Gods…”
“Brocken the highest of the Harz Mountains of north central Germany. It is noted for the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre and for witches’ revels which reputably took place there on Walpurgis night. The Brocken Spectre is a magnified shadow of an observer, typically surrounded by rainbow-like bands, thrown onto a bank of cloud in high mountain areas when the sun is low. The phenomenon was first reported on the Brocken.”
—Taken from Oxford Phrase & Fable.
In some parts of northern coastal regions of Germany, the custom is to light huge Beltane fires to celebrate the coming of May, while most parts of Germany have a derived Christianized custom around Easter called “Easter fires.”
In rural parts of southern Germany youth go out on Walburgisnacht to play pranks on other people, like messing up a garden, hiding things, or spraying messages on other people’s property. Sometimes these pranks go too far and result in damage to property or bodily injury.
Walpurgis is one of the main holidays during the year in both Sweden and Finland, along with Christmas and Midsummer. The forms of celebration in Sweden vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. One of the main traditions in Sweden is to light large bonfires, a custom which is most firmly established in Svealand, and which began in Uppland during the 18th century. An older tradition from Southern Sweden was for the younger people to collect greens and branches from the woods at twilight, which were used to adorn the houses of the village. The expected reward for this task to be paid in eggs.
The tradition which is most spread throughout the country is probably singing songs of spring. Most of the songs are from the 19th century and were spread by the students’ spring festivities. The strongest and most traditional spring festivities are also found in the old university cities, like Uppsala and Lund where both current and graduated students gather at events that take up most of the day from early morning to late night on April 30, or “sista april” (“The last day of April”) as many people call it. There are also newer student traditions like the carnival parade, The Cortège, which has been held since 1909 by the students at Chalmers in Gothenburg. In Sweden, Valborg is especially notorious because of the excessive amounts of alcohol people consume on that very day.
Today in Finland, Walpurgis Night (Vapunaatto) is, along with New Year’s Eve, the biggest carnival-style festivity taking place in the streets of Finland’s towns and cities. The celebration is typically centered on plentiful use of sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. The student traditions are also one of the main characteristics of “Vappu”. From the end of the 19th century, “Fin de Siècle”, and onwards, this traditional upper class feast has been co-opted by students attending university, already having received their student cap. Many people who have graduated from lukio wear the cap. One tradition is drinking mead, whose alcohol content varies. Fixtures include the capping of the Havis Amanda, a nude female statue in Helsinki, and the biannually alternating publications of ribald matter called Äpy and Julkku. Both are sophomoric; but while Julkku is a standard magazine, Äpy is always a gimmick. Classic forms have included an Äpy printed on a toilet-roll and a bedsheet. Often the magazine has been stuffed inside standard industrial packages such as sardine-cans and milk cartons. The festivities also include a picnic on May 1st, which is sometimes prepared in a lavish manner.
The Finnish tradition is also a shadowing of the Soviet Era May Day parade. Starting with the parties of the left, the whole of the Finnish political scene has nominated Vappu as the day to go out on stumps and agitate. This does not only include right-wing parties, but also others like the church have followed suit, marching and making speeches. In Sweden it is only the labour and socialist parties which use May 1 for political activities, while others observe the traditional festivities. The labourers who were active in the 1970’s still party on the first of May. They arrange carnivals and the radio plays their old songs that workers liked to listen to. The labour spirit lies most in the capital of Finland, Helsinki.
The First of May is also a day for everything fun and crazy: children and families gather to market places to celebrate often the first day of the spring and the coming summer. There are balloons and joy, people drink their first beers outside, there are clowns and masks and a lot of fun. The first of May includes colourful streamers, funny and silly things and sun. The first of May means the beginning of the spring for many people in Finland.
Traditionally May 1st is celebrated by a picnic in a park (Kaivopuisto in case of Helsinki). For most, the picnic is enjoyed with friends on blanket with good food and sparkling wine. Some people, however, arrange extremely lavish picnics with pavilions, white table cloths, silver candelabras, classical music and lavish food. The picnic usually starts early in the morning, and some hard-core party goers continue the celebrations of the previous evening without sleeping in between. Some Student organisations have traditional areas where they camp every year and they usually send someone to reserve the spot early on. As with other Vappu traditions, the picnic includes student caps, mead, streamers and balloons.
References in modern culture
The second act of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is entitled “Walpurgisnacht.”
In the 1931 film Dracula, a Romanian peasant describes the night on which the film begins as Walpurgis night.
The last chapter of book 5 of Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain is named “Walpurgis Night.”
Anton Szandor LaVey chose Walpurgis Night in 1966 to found the Church of Satan.
Adolf Hitler, with several members of his staff (including Joseph Goebbels), committed suicide on Walpurgisnacht, April 30/May 1, 1945.
Gustav Meyrink wrote a novel called “Walpurgisnacht” in 1917, about a carnivalesque popular uprising in Prague against the city’s longtime Germanic monarchs.
According to an interview with J.K. Rowling, the Death Eaters were originally called the Knights of Walpurgis, a pun on Walpurgis Night.
In Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson a key character observes Walpurgisnacht celebrations in 17th-century Germany.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson make repeated references to Walpurgisnacht.
Songs whose titles include or make reference to Walpurgis Night include:
- “Repent Walpurgis”, by the English progressive rock band Procol Harum.
- “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath was originally titled “Walpurgis”.
- “Wall Purges Night”, an obvious pun on Walpurgisnacht, by the expatriate English musical group the Legendary Pink Dots.
- “Walpurgisnacht”, by Schandmaul.
- “Walpurgis Night”, by Running Wild (band).