30 Apr 2010

Walpurgis Night

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It’s April 30th today, in Sweden a day known as Valborgsmässoafton or simply Valborg (in English Walpurgis Night). The day is a festive occasion associated with the bonfires but also singing of traditional songs of Spring and parties of course. The day is particularly popular with students as they have usually just finished their exams and it is a time to let their hair down and enjoy their new found freedoms.

The celebration has ancient traditions possibly going back to pre-Christian times in Europe. The day marks the birth of Saint Walpurga, who is believed to have been born in Devon, England around the year 710. This tradition of lighting bonfires on this day originates from Germany, where they lit bonfires to scare off witches. In Sweden we used to let cows and goats out into the forest on May 1st to begin their summer grazing. The Vikings picked up the habit of lighting bonfires to keep away evil spirits and wild animals so that the livestock would not get harmed. They also used the bonfires to celebrate and hurry up spring, and to purify nature.

Sweden.se – The offical gateway to Sweden, explains the celebration:

You can collect a whole load of junk in the course of a year. And in Sweden much of it ends up on the Walpurgis bonfire — old doors and fencing, branches from pruned fruit trees, discarded bushes and old cardboard boxes. The bonfires are lit all over the country on 30 April.

Choral singing is a popular pastime in Sweden, and on Walpurgis Eve virtually every choir in the country is busy. In every village and neighbourhood, bonfires are lit at dusk, and everyone has experienced that rosy red glow in your face from the heat of the fire and the freezing cold at your back. The spring sun may keep you warm, but when it sets the nights are still chilly.

Walpurgis celebrations are not a family occasion but rather a public event, and local groups often take responsibility for organising them to encourage community spirit in the village or neighbourhood.

Once the fire dies, many people move on to pubs and restaurants or to friends’ parties. The fact that Walpurgis Eve is followed by 1 May (Labour Day) — a public holiday in Sweden since 1939 — means that people are not afraid of partying into the night.

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