Friday, April 20, 2012

Off the Beaten Track: Vappu, May 1st in Finland

Our guest today is Christine Hammar. Christine  lives in Finland in a small village north of the Capital, Helsinki. She works five days a week as office manager in a transport company. She enjoys reading, writing, gardening in the summer, cooking and long walks. Her eight-year-old grandson also keeps her busy at times as do her four grown children.

In Finland, restaurants’ outside terraces open on April Fool's Day and are kept open until October 31st. As May approaches, the cold, dark winter finally gives way to spring. The sun shines and it gets warmer by the day. The first heralds of spring, the wood anemones and common hepaticas, are in bloom amidst last year’s brown leaves.

In earlier times, the first day of May was also the time when the cattle were turned out to pasture for the summer. After the  winter, people in Finland are as giddy as cattle let out to graze after being kept in the dark; we jump around and make merry--maybe overdoing it a bit, but after being either wet or cold or both for almost seven months (October-April) we’ve definitely earned it!

As the warmth spreads, farmers get to work as soon as their fields have dried up a bit from the melting snow. The potato farmers, especially, are at it as soon as weather permits because we just have to have new potatoes for our Midsummer festivities.

All this slow waking and stretching from our winter hibernation gives way to May Day festivities. It’s a national holiday in Finland. May 1 is traditionally Labour Day in much of the world, and the Finnish celebration blends three traditions:  ancient pagan rites of spring, St. Walburga's day, and the students’ feast.

St. Walburga’s Day has a complicated history. For more than a thousand years before Christianity, pagans of the north celebrated spring with festivals that honoured the sun's welcoming and warming rays after the cold of winter with its short daylight hours, snow, and stormy nights. Spring brought the promise of life-giving forces and much needed warmth. In Germany, this festival was the night when witches were reputed to hold a large celebration on Brocken Mountain, awaiting the arrival of spring.

St. Walburga herself was born in Devonshire, England, around 710 AD. When her father started with his two sons on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, he sent eleven-year-old Walburga to Wimborne Abbey where she received a classical education. Later she wrote about lives of saints in Latin and is regarded by many as the first female author. Several miracles are attributed to her, including praying in a storm-tossed boat  that brought instant calm to the sea.

With her brothers, she became an evangelist among the still-pagan Germans and eventually entered the monastery of  Heidenheim am Hahnenkamm, founded by her brother, Willibald. She later succeeded him as abbess.

The night of May 1, the date of Walburga’s canonization, has come to be known as Walpurgisnacht, blending the pagan festival that marks the beginning of summer and the revels of witches. Though Walburga had no connection with this festival, and many Catholics strenuously protest, her name became associated with witchcraft and country superstitions because of the date. It is possible that the protection of crops ascribed to her, represented by three ears of corn in her icons, may have been transferred to her from Mother Earth and the connection to this pagan holiday.

The rather intense Vappu festivities begin in the evening of the 30th of April with lots of outdoor merrymaking, dancing, and drinking. In Helsinki, the mermaid statue and fountain of Havis Amanda, situated in Market square, is washed. The bronze statue, by Finnish sculptor Ville Vallgren, rises from a granite fountain on the fins of four fish spouting water. She got her name from the Swedish word “hav” meaning sea and the Latin word “Amanda,” beloved.  She represents rebirth and is thus a fitting representative of spring.

Students gather at the statue to give Havis Amanda a bath. The celebration continues as students climb aboard a crane to place a student cap on the statue. They spray bottles of bubbly on the statue and each other—of course, they also drink the sparkling wine. Many students end up having a cold bath in the fountain.

After celebrating and partying through the night the party-goers gather in parks to have a morning picnic, also called "Herring Lunch", and to listen to traditional male choral singing (lovely spring songs, in both Swedish and Finnish) and brass band music. This has become a yearly tradition, no matter what the weather is like. Traditional food includes nonalcoholic mead called sima and special May Day cookies called tippaleipä, which resemble German Schneeballen or funnel cakes


  1. This sounds like such a fun celebration, Christine! Thanks for sharing this piece of Finnish culture with us. It's fascinating to see another way in which old religions and traditions get adopted into new ones, something we've been discussing all week.

    1. Yes, Heidi, it does get a bit "pagan" during Vappu here in Finland :). It is, as you said, an example of crosspollination of religions in a way.

  2. Through a friend I know much about Finland's administration and education system, I am happy to add some cultural knowledge!!Thank You! I just don't think I can handle those cold dark winters.

    1. Hi, Geets!
      Winters and the snow and the cold are a bit tricky, but we say it's a matter of dressing right :). The mental part might be difficult with the darkness: it's dark when you leave for work and it's dark when you get home. Quite tiresome.
      Luckily we're going towards summer!

  3. Is Vappu a bit like Valborg in Sweden? Are there bonfires during Vappu in Finland?