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Walpurgisnacht

Updated: Apr 29

Walpurgis Night, also known as Walpurgisnacht in German, is a holiday that occurs on the 30th of April in different parts of Europe. It is named after Saint Walpurga and dates back to ancient pagan fertility rites. It is mainly celebrated in Germany, Sweden, and Finland. However, variants of this holiday are also celebrated in the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Slovenia, Latvia, and Lithuania.


Walpurgis Night can be traced back to pagan Norse celebrations of fertility rites and the coming of spring in Northern Europe and Scandinavia that were practiced for thousands of years before the arrival of Christianity. On this day, people would hang foliage sprigs around their homesteads and farms to ward off evil spirits and leave offerings of food and mead for the dead, who were believed to walk the Earth on this day.


After the Norse were Christianized during the 8th century, these traditions became conflated with the legend of St. Walpurga.


Saint Walpurga

The festival of Walpurgis Night is named after the English Christian missionary Saint Walpurga (c. 710 – 777/9). She was the daughter of Saint Richard the Pilgrim and sister of Saint Willibald, Saint Walpurga (also known as Saint Walpurgis or Walburga) was born in Devon, England, in AD 710. Born into a prominent Anglo-Saxon family, Saint Walpurga studied medicine and became a Christian missionary to Germany, where she founded a double monastery in Heidenheim in Baden-Württemberg. As such, Christian artwork often depicts her holding bandages in her hand. As a result of Saint Walpurga's evangelism in Germany, the people there converted to Christianity from heathenism. In addition, "the monastery became an education center and 'soon became famous as a center of culture'". Saint Walpurga was hailed by the Christians of Germany for battling "pest, rabies, and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft".  Christians prayed to God through the intercession of Saint Walpurga in order to protect themselves and to repel the effects of witchcraft. Saint Walpurga died on 25 February 777 (some sources say 778 or 779).


The canonization of Walpurga and the movement of her relics to Eichstätt in Bavaria occurred on 1 May in the year 870, thus leading to the Feast of Saint Walpurga and its eve, Walpurgis Night, being popularly observed on this date. She quickly became one of the most popular saints in England, Germany, and France. When the bishop had Saint Walpurga's relics moved to Eichstätt, "miraculous cures were reported as her remains traveled along the route." Miracle cures were later reported from ailing people who anointed themselves with a fluid known as Walburpa's oil that drained from the rock at her shrine at Eichstätt. Said to heal sickness, Saint Walpurga's oil is still distributed in vials by Benedictine nuns to Christian pilgrims who visit Saint Walpurga's tomb.


Due to 1 May being the date of Walpurgis Night it coincided with an older May Eve festival and other regional traditions, celebrated in much of northern Europe, especially in Finland and Sweden. A variety of festivals of pre-Christian origin had been celebrated at this time (halfway between the spring equinox and summer solstice) to mark the beginning of summer, including the ancient Celtic Sabbat (religious festival) of Beltane, which had merged with Germanic May Day. Folklorist Jack Santino said that "Her day and its traditions almost certainly are traceable to pre-Christian celebrations that took place at this time, on the first of May." Art historian Pamela Berger noted Walpurga's association with sheaves of grain, and suggested that her cult was adapted from pagan agrarian goddesses. Although it is likely that the date of her canonization is purely coincidental to the date of the pagan celebrations of spring, people were able to celebrate both events under church law without fear of reprisal.


Given that the intercession of Saint Walpurga was believed to be efficacious against evil magic, medieval and Renaissance tradition held that, during Walpurgis Night, witches celebrated a sabbath and evil powers were at their strongest. In German folklore, Walpurgis Night was 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 (this is similar to the tradition of the witches in Sweden at Easter time, see here). To ward off evil and protect themselves and their livestock, people would traditionally light fires on the hillsides, a tradition that continues in some regions today. In Bavaria, the feast day is sometimes called Hexennacht, literally "Witches' Night", on which revelers dress as witches and demons, set off fireworks, dance and play loud music, which is said to drive the witches and winter spirits away.


Walpurgis Night is celebrated in much the same way it has always been. In parts of Germany, it is celebrated by dressing up in costumes and playing pranks, which makes it very similar to Halloween celebrations in the United States. Some people also create loud noises, sometimes using fireworks, to drive away evil spirits and witches.


Many people also hang blessed sprigs of foliage from houses and barns to ward off evil spirits, or they leave pieces of bread coated with butter and honey, called "Ankenschnitt" for the spirit dogs that are believed to travel from house to house.


In Finland Walpurgis Night and May Day are effectively merged into a single celebration that is usually referred to as Vappu and that is among the country’s most important holidays. Initially, Walpurgis Night was celebrated by the Finnish upper class. Then, in the late 19th century, students (most notably engineering students) took up its celebration. Today merrymaking begins on the evening of 30 April, often augmented with the drinking of alcoholic beverages, particularly sparkling wine. The carnival-like festivities carry over to the next day, frequently taking on a family dimension, as friends and relatives picnic in parks among balloons and consume sima, a homemade low-alcohol (and sometimes not so low-alcohol) mead.


In Sweden, while the name Walpurgis is taken from the Saint Walpurga, Valborg, as it is called in Swedish (short for Valborgsmässoafton), or 'the last of April', also marks the arrival of spring. The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. 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. Celebrations normally include lighting the bonfire, choral singing and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season, often held by a local celebrity.


In the Middle Ages, the Swedish 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. Walpurgis bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to at least 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 a popular pastime in Sweden, and on Walpurgis Eve virtually every choir in the country was busy. Singing traditional songs of spring is widespread throughout the country. The songs are mostly from the 19th century and were spread by students' spring festivities. The strongest and most traditional spring festivities are also found 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 30 April, 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. 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.


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.


Walpurgis Night has been the target of the same condemnation by conservative religious groups as Halloween has weathered over the years. The charges leveled by these critics, who usually want the event suppressed, are the same for both celebrations: that they focus on death, the macabre, and encourage destructive or unhealthy behaviors. However, the majority of those who participate in the event are taking part in an ancient ritual that celebrates life and its eternal continuation at the start of the Spring season.


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