Walpurgis Night ( Walpurgisnacht) occurs on the night of 30 April, so called because it is the eve of the feast day of Saint Walpurga, an 8th-century Missionary and abbess in Francia. In Germanic folklore, Walpurgisnacht, also called Hexennacht (Dutch: heksennacht), literally “Witches’ Night”, is believed to be the night of a witches’ meeting on the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, a range of wooded hills in central Germany between the rivers Weser and Elbe. The first known written occurrence of the English translation “Walpurgis Night” is from the 19th century. Local variants of Walpurgis Night are observed throughout Europe in the Netherlands, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, Lithuania, Latvia, Finland, and Estonia. In Denmark the tradition with bonfires to fence off the witches going to the Brocken is observed as Saint John’s Eve—essentially a midsummer celebration “with witches”.
As Walpurga’s feast was held on 1 May (c. 870), she became associated with May Day, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars. The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurgisnacht (“Walpurga’s night”). The name of the holiday is Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht (“Witches’ Night”) in German, Heksennacht in Dutch, Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish, Vappen in Finland Swedish, Vappu in Finnish, Volbriöö in Estonian, Valpurgijos naktis in Lithuanian, Valpurģu nakts or Valpurģi in Latvian, čarodějnice and Valpuržina noc in Czech.
The Germanic term Walpurgisnacht is recorded in 1668 by Johannes Praetorius as S. Walpurgis Nacht or S. Walpurgis Abend. An earlier mention of Walpurgis and S. Walpurgis Abend is in the 1603 edition of the Calendarium perpetuum of Johann Coler, who also refers to the following day, 1 May, as Jacobi Philippi, feast day of the apostles James the Less and Philip in the Catholic calendar. The 17th-century German tradition of a meeting of sorcerers and witches on May Day eve (Hexennacht, “Witches’ Night”) is influenced by the descriptions of Witches’ Sabbaths in 15th- and 16th-century literature.
In the Czech Republic 30 April is pálení čarodějnic (“burning of the witches”) or čarodějnice (“the witches”) is celebrated, during which Huge bonfires—up to 8 metres (26 ft) tall—are built and burnt in the evening, preferably on top of hills. Young people gather around. Sudden black and dense smoke formations are cheered as “a witch flying away”. As evening advances to midnight and fire is on the wane, it is time to go search for a cherry tree in blossom. Young women should be kissed past midnight (and during the following day) under a cherry tree. They “will not dry up” for an entire year. The First of May is celebrated then as “the day of those in love”.
In Estonia, Volbriöö is celebrated throughout the night of 30 April and into the early hours of 1 May, where 1 May is a public holiday called “Spring Day” (Kevadpüha). Volbriöö is an important and widespread celebration of the arrival of spring in the country. Influenced by German culture, the night originally stood for the gathering and meeting of witches. Modern people still dress up as witches to wander the streets in a carnival-like mood. The Volbriöö celebrations are especially vigorous in Tartu, the university town in southern Estonia. For Estonian students in student corporations (fraternities and sororities), the night starts with a traditional procession through the streets of Tartu, followed by visiting each other’s corporation houses throughout the night.
In Finland, Walpurgis day (Vappu) is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus). Walpurgis witnesses the biggest carnival-style festival 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 centres on copious consumption of sima, 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) alumni wear the black and white student cap and many higher education students wear student coveralls. One tradition is to drink sima, a home-made low-alcohol mead, along with freshly cooked funnel cakes.
In the capital 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 sophomoric; 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 in Helsinki city.
The Finnish tradition is also a shadowing of the Socialist May Day parade. Expanding from the parties of the left, the whole of the Finnish political scene has adopted Vappu as the day to go out on stumps and agitate. This includes not only political activists. Other institutions, such as the state Lutheran church, have followed suit, marching and making speeches. Left-wing activists of the 1970s still party on May Day. They arrange carnivals. And radio stations play leftist songs from the 1970s.
Traditionally, 1 May is celebrated by a picnic in a park. For most, the picnic is enjoyed with friends on a blanket with good food and sparkling wine. Some people, however, arrange extremely lavish picnics with pavilions, white tablecloths, silver candelabras, classical music and extravagant food. The picnic usually starts early in the morning, where some of the previous night’s party-goers continue their celebrations undaunted by lack of sleep. Some student organisations reserve areas where they traditionally camp every year. Student caps, mead, streamers and balloons have their role in the picnic, as well as in the celebration as a whole.
In Germany, Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht (“Witches’ Night”), the night from 30 April to 1 May, is the night when witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken mountain and await the arrival of spring and also hold revels with the Devil. Brocken is the highest of the Harz Mountains of north central Germany. It is also noted for the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre when a shadow of a person can appear magnified by low level sunlight shining behind and below as the sun is setting.
The Brocken (or Blocksberg) also features in Goethe’s play Faust when magician Mephistopheles conjures up supernatural creatures During Walpurgisnight. “Walpurgisnacht.” Is also mentioned in Bram Stoker’s short story, “Dracula’s Guest,” an Englishman (whose name is never mentioned) is on a visit to Munich before leaving for Transylvania. It is Walpurgis Night, and in spite of the hotelier’s warning not to be late coming back, the young man later leaves his carriage and wanders toward the direction of an abandoned “unholy” village. As the carriage departs with the frightened and superstitious driver, a tall and thin stranger scares the horses at the crest of a hill. In some parts of northern coastal regions of Germany, the custom of lighting huge fires is still kept alive to celebrate the coming of May, while most parts of Germany have a derived Christianized custom around Easter called “Easter fires” (Osterfeuer). In rural parts of southern Germany, it is part of popular youth culture to play pranks such as tampering with neighbours’ gardens, hiding possessions, or spraying graffiti on private property. In Berlin, traditional leftist May Day riots usually start at Walpurgis Night in the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg.
Sweden celebrates Valborg, which has more to do with the arrival of spring. celebrations vary in different parts of the country. 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. During the Middle Ages, the administrative year ended on 30 April. Accordingly, this was a day of festivity among the merchants and craftsmen of the town, with trick-or-treat, dancing and singing in preparation for the forthcoming celebration of spring. The first of May was a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires blazed. Walpurgis bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis (Valborg), farm animals were let out to graze and bonfires (majbrasor, kasar) lit to scare away predators. 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 popular in Sweden, on Walpurgis Eve and choirs Sing traditional 19th century songs of spring. traditional spring festivities are held 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 30, 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, Walpurgis Eve heralds freedom. Traditionally the exams were over and only the odd lecture remained before term ends. More modern Valborg celebrations, particularly among Uppsala students, often consist of enjoying a breakfast including champagne and strawberries. During the day, people gather in parks, drink considerable amounts of alcoholic beverages, barbecue, and generally enjoy the weather, if it happens to be favorable.
In Uppsala, students have honoured spring by rafting on Fyrisån through the center of town with rickety, homemade, and often humorously decorated rafts. Several nations also hold “Champagne Races” (Swedish: 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 many students and former students begin the day at the park Trädgårdföreningen, in the field below Belvederen where the city laws permits alcohol, to drink champagne breakfast in a similar way to Uppsala. Later at 15:00 o’clock 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 Walpurgis at the Umeå University campus. 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.
Walpurgisnacht is not celebrated today in the Netherlands due to the national Koninginnedag on the same date, though the new koningsdag (king’s day) is on 27 April. The island of Texel celebrates a festival known as the ‘Meierblis, where bonfires are lit near nightfall, just as on Walpurgis In order to drive away the remaining cold of winter and welcome spring. In recent years a renewed interest in pre-Christian religion and culture such as Walpurgis Night. In 1999, suspicions were raised among local Reformed party members in Putten, Gelderland of a Walpurgis festival celebrated by Satanists. The party called for a ban. Rumors that Satanic sects celebrate Walpurgis Night come from other towns as well, with the local churches in Dokkum, Friesland organizing a service in 2003 to pray to the Holy Spirit to counter such Satanic action.