About This Festival
Walpurgisnacht (Witches' Night) is an ancient festival to welcome the spring weather and to drive away evil spirits. Though there are many variations of the festival, it is commonly celebrated with dancing and bonfires on April 30 or May 1 throughout Central and Northern Europe. Strangely enough, it is exactly six months from All Hallows' Eve, more commonly known as Halloween. Like Halloween, Walpurgis has its roots in ancient pagan customs, superstitions where the arrival of spring was celebrated with bonfires at night.
The name comes from the 8th century missionary Saint Walburga (variations of the name include Walpurgis, Wealdburg, and Valderburger). Known for speaking out against witchcraft and sorcery, she founded the Catholic convent of Heidenheim in Germany. She was canonized a saint on the May 1, 779. Since the celebration of her sainthood and the old Viking festival occurred around the same time, over the years the festivals and traditions intermingled until the hybrid pagan-Catholic celebration became known as Valborgsmässoafton (in Swedish) or Walpurgisnacht (in German).
Walpurgisnacht Haunts Germany
In Germany, Walpurgisnacht is the night when the witches gather together at the Hexentanzplatz (witches' dance), from where they fly up as one to Mount Brocken, where they convene with the devil. Legend says that evil ghosts represented by cold weather, snow and darkness meet with witches and demons in the Harz mountains. Their sinister cavortings around the fire are said to reunite them with the devil.
Superstitious nonsense you might think, but you could be in for a surprise. People from all over Germany head to this famous mountain, also known as the Blocksberg, to celebrate the arrival of Spring.
The origin of witches night goes back to pagan times, when people believed that evil ghosts tried to prevent the "Queen of Spring" from entering the country. Witches and demons were masters of people and things, so people did a lot to protect themselves. Believing it was dangerous to be outside on this night people lit fires and danced wildly to deter the witches from coming too close to them or their homes. These traditions led to the custom of lighting fires and erecting maypoles still seen today.
Young men in Rhineland may put a branch wrapped in colorful ribbons in the garden of a girl he would like to marry. Young women place these branches in the gardens of young men during leap years.
In rural parts of southern Germany, it is part of popular youth culture to play pranks such as tampering with neighbors' gardens, hiding possessions, or spraying graffiti on private property. German police patrol the neighborhoods Saturday night and take appropriate action if necessary. To be on the safe side, residents should take some precautionary measures such as parking their cars in the garage and putting stuff inside that usually sits outdoors such as doormats and flower pots.
In the Middle Ages, the administrative year ended on April 30. Accordingly, this was a day of festivity among the merchants and craftsmen of the town. This is the night of the bonfire in Sweden, traditionally believed to ward off evil spirits, but now a festive way of getting rid of excess gardening odds and ends. Expect a lot of Swedish flags around as King Carl XVI Gustaf celebrates his birthday on Walpurgis.
Modern celebrations, 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. Virtually every choir in the country is busy singing the traditional songs of spring.
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. The most bizarre collection of vehicles makes its way through the streets, accompanied by marching bands, people in costume and thousands of spectators. Students on bicycles, cars that are upside down, sofas with motors, just about anything you can think of. 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 the Czech Republic it is known as Pálení čarodějnic (Burning of the Witches) and typically celebrated by throwing hand-made witches made from rags and straw or even broomsticks into a bonfire
Volbriöö as it's known in Estonia is an important and widespread celebration of the arrival of spring in the country. Modern people still dress up as witches to wander the streets in a carnival-like mood. Nowadays for example in Tartu (a university town) fraternities march with an orchestra and singing to the statue of Karl Ernst von Baer to wash his head with champagne.
In Finland, Walpurgis Day (Vappu) is one of the four biggest holidays, up there with Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Mentions in Film and Literature
Walpurgis Night has featured in a number of films and novels including The Wicker Man and Bram Stoker's Dracula.