Of Fire and Fairytales: Celebrating Walpurgis Night
On the evening of the 30th of April, many towns and cities in Central and Northern Europe come alive with spectacular bonfires, choral concerts and some pretty crazy antics led by university students. Haven’t heard of it? Well, it’s time to mark it in your calendar because you’re missing out on one of the biggest parties of the year! Here’s all you need to know about celebrating Walpurgis Night.
Walpurgis Night is the English translation of the German Walpurgisnacht and has a long history stemming back to pre-Christian Europe. It’s celebrated every year on the 30th April, with the festivities often continuing the next day. It’s a unique event that combines pagan and Christian traditions.
Walpurgis Night has a connection with the mysterious and supernatural: it takes place exactly six months after All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween). And if this uncanny coincidence doesn’t spook you, then just read what Bram Stoker, the author of the Dracula – one of the most spine-tingling novels ever written – had to say:
“Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad – when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel…It took all my philosophy, all the religion I had been taught, all my courage, not to collapse in a paroxysm of fright.” – Bram Stoker, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Tales
Sounds like a riot, doesn’t it?
This idea of Walpurgis Night as a dark time of witchery and horror comes from pre-Christian Germanic folklore. People believed that the 30th of April was a night of revelry for witches and evil spirits who gathered on Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains of Germany. The 1st of May was considered the first day of Spring and marked the commencement of the harvesting season. The 30th of April was therefore celebrated as “May Day Eve”, a night when bonfires were burned and a lot of clammer was made to ward off the winter witches and demons and scare off any predators that would attempt to eat the cattle that had been released into the fields for the summer.
Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons
After Christianity spread throughout Europe, the 30th of April became associated with Saint Walpurga, an English missionary to the Frankish empire who became canonised as a Saint on the 1st of May some time in the 9th century. The name Walpurgisnacht literally means “Walpurga’s Night”, referring to the 30th of April as the evening before the Feast of Walpurga that was held the following day. Linguistic variants of Walpurgisnacht, including the Finnish Vappu and the Swedish Valborg, are derived from versions of the name Walpurga.
Walpurgis Night – “Vappu” – in Helsinki 2015. Image Credit: LEHTIKUVA / Vesa Moilanen
Nowadays Walpurgis Night is more about good food, drink and partying all night long than it is about witchcraft or Catholic saints. It’s a chance for communities to get together and for students to indulge their wilder sides. In many parts of northern Europe, Walpurgis Night is one of the biggest events on the university calendar. And for those of you who like the darker history behind this event, don’t despair, parts of the older traditions remain, such as the lighting of massive bonfires and burning of witches (not real ones, of course!)
Let’s find out how Walpurgis Night is celebrated in Germany, Scandinavia and the Czech Republic:
A view of Wernigerode Castle in the town of Wernigerode situated in the Harz district of Germany. Image Credit: Olli Henze
In the German language, Walpurgis Night is known as Walpurgisnacht or Hexennacht (“Witches’ Night”). In the northern parts of the country you can find more traditional celebrations, with people dressing up as witches and celebrating in the Harz Mountains where the tradition originated. Throughout Germany, many towns and villages erect a “Maibaum” (Maypole) and decorate it with ribbons, and light bonfires to chase away the evil spirits of wintertime.
The boat race down the River Fyris in Uppsala, Sweden. Image Credit: (rinse)
In Finland, Walpurgis Night is known as Vappu and it’s one of the big four annual holidays (the others being Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, and Midsummer), particularly for students. Vappu celebrations begin on the evening of 30 April and continue the following day and are centered around drinking; copious amounts of sima (a low-alcoholic mead), sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages are consumed. The following day is celebrated with dishes such as gravlax, pickled herring, and a special May Day fritter for dessert.
In Sweden the festival, known as Valborgsmässoafton or simply Valborg, is also celebrated with great fervour by university students. The holiday falls at a time when examinations are soon over and the semester is nearing its end, so it’s a premonition of warmer weather and happy times to come. In the city of Uppsala, students gather early for a champagne breakfast followed by a makeshift boat race down the River Fyris. This is followed by BBQs and more drinking and festivities throughout the day.
But don’t be put off by the student crowds; while Valborg has become associated more and more with students it’s certainly not only those attending university who can celebrate. Local community groups organise bonfires and choral concerts in towns and cities across the country for the whole family.
Image Credit: Kids in Prague
In the Czech Republic the 30th of April is known as pálení čarodějnic (“burning of the witches”) or čarodějnice (“the witches”). Massive bonfires as tall as 8 metres are constructed and set ablaze in the evening, often on the top of hills. Rag and straw witch effigies are burned as a throwback to the older pagan traditions. Parks play host to family-filled festivals where children and parents alike dress up Halloween-style and take part in fun activities during the day.
Where to Celebrate
Image Credit: wheniscalendars.com
The great thing about Walpurgis Night is there is really something for everyone. No matter if you’re travelling solo, old or young, accompanied by your bachelor friends or your four kids, there’s fun to be had. Here are our top suggestions:
Traditional – Harz district: If you want to go straight to the heart of the Walpurgisnacht legend, head for a town in the Harz Mountains such as Wernigerode or Thale. The surrounding regions are steeped in folklore – the Brothers Grimm even collected material for their stories here. It will take you back to the fairytales of you childhood filled with witches, dwarves and cottages buried deep in the woods.
Festive – Uppsala/Stockholm: Swing by Uppsala in the morning to watch the boat race down the River Fyris, then move on to the Valborg celebrations in Skansen, Stockholm, an open-air museum. The program kicks off around 3pm with speakers and choral concerts, and there’s free entry for students.
Family Fun – Prague: Ladronka Park in Prague hosts the biggest čarodějnice celebration in the Czech Republic. Admission is free and the activities kick off at midday. Kids can roast sausages on wooden sticks, dress up as witches, and take part in theatre performances, face painting and a Miss Witch competition.
So there you have it – our guide to the Walpurgis Night tradition and some tips on where to go to experience it for yourself. Pack your bags and help your host family usher in the arrival of Spring.
About the Author: Clarissa Hirst is GoCambio’s Content Manager. A born-and-bred Australian, Clarissa currently calls Sweden home. She’s travelled to over 40 countries, loves learning foreign languages, and her passion is inspiring others to learn about and explore the world around them. She hopes to one day speak fluent Russian and ride the Trans-Siberian railway. Connect with Clarissa on Twitter.
COVER IMAGE CREDIT: Olli Henze