Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Walpurgis Eve — and 1 May

by Po Tidholm

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.
Bonfires and singingFor students, Walpurgis Eve heralds freedom. Exams are over and only the odd lecture remains before term ends. On the last day of April, the students don their characteristic white caps and sing songs of welcome to spring, to the budding greenery and to a brighter future.

In town, the bonfires are lit to warm the soul, in the countryside to burn winter refuse. Photo: Gunnar Lundmark / Scanpix
In town, the bonfires are lit to warm the soul, in the countryside to burn winter refuse. Photo: Gunnar Lundmark/Scanpix

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.

A dish to warm you up at a time like this is nettle soup. Nettles are, of course, a weed. They quickly appear when the snow melts, contain large amounts of iron and are best when young and fresh.

Party or May Day demonstration?
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 — a public holiday in Sweden since 1939 — means that people are not afraid of partying into the night.

Those who wish to can sleep throughout the following day, while others mark this traditional workers’ day of leave by joining one or other of the May Day demonstrations that parade through the streets of their town or village, beneath banners carrying slogans of a classical or more topical nature.

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Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic with the Stockholm daily, Dagens Nyheter. Po Tidholm wrote the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today.

Agneta Lilja is a lecturer in ethnology at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. Agneta Lilja wrote the sections about the history of Swedish traditions and festivities.

The authors alone are responsible for the opinions expressed on this web page.

Translation: Stephen Croall/Lingon

© Photo: Gunnar Lundmark/Scanpix

Copyright: 2004 Agneta Lilja, Po Tidholm and the Swedish Institute. This text is published by the Swedish Institute on

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