Although winter has not officially begun, it is never too soon to start planning for the beginning of spring. And throughout northern Europe, where winter is known for its short days, long nights and bitter cold weather, the start of springtime is a celebration for everyone. If you’re lucky enough to be in Stockholm around that time of year there is one day that is especially memorable.
An ancient pagan custom directed that Swedes should light bonfires on the last night of April in order to protect themselves against witches that might gather that night to worship the devil. That pagan festival also marked the start of the growing season and the bonfires were also intended o protect the new plantings from evil and to guarantee the health and fertility of the animal stock.
In the Middle Ages April 30th became the day that marked the official end of the year and a day of celebration and festivities that included dancing, singing and even trick or treating. Known as Valborg or Walpurgis Eve, the day was especially important among business owners of the villages because it was the day of the annual village meeting. Food and refreshments were served while the city chose its new alderman, or head of the city council. In many areas, children would go around to homes and sing May songs in exchange for gifts of food.
On the following day, the first of May, farm animals would be released into the spring fields to graze after the long winter months. Farmers knew there would be wild animals nearby that were hungry from the long winter and just looking for such an easy meal as farm animals. So, those farmers would build huge bonfires during Walpurgis Eve in hopes of scaring away those predators and any other evil spirits. Often the townsfolk made loud noises with gunfire, cow bells or simply loud yelling in order to frighten any potential predators or evil spirits that might be lurking in the darkness.
Commonly known as the night of the bonfires, Valborg celebrations in modern Stockholm often begin early in the day with picnics in the parks, good food and plentiful champagne or beer. But at sunset the celebrations expand with crowds gathering around bonfires to sing folk songs, dance and enjoy fireworks. This is viewed as the last day of winter and the Swedes are anxious to welcome the spring. Some of the bonfires can be huge, but don’t worry. There are always firemen waiting nearby to control the blaze. And once the fires die down, many revelers head straight to the pubs and continue the celebration into the early morning hours.
For the best traditional version of the Valborg celebration, head to nearby Skansen, Stockholm’s hugely popular open air museum. Another great spot for the celebration is at Evert Taubes Square on Riddarholmen in the heart of the city.
The following day, May 1st, has been celebrated in a variety of ways since the early 1800s. But in the late 19th century the day became an important rally day for industrial workers demonstrating against a variety of workplace grievances. And since 1939 it has been a national holiday in Sweden intended to celebrate the return of spring but also, perhaps, to allow the partiers from Walpurgis Eve an opportunity to get some badly needed sleep and relaxation.
If you don’t live in the extreme conditions of a harsh winter in northern countries, it’s impossible to imagine the hardships those residents must endure. But if you’re lucky enough to attend one of the Valborg bonfires celebrating the end of winter in Stockholm you’ll have an opportunity to experience the excitement and joy that the coming springtime weather means to everyone there.
Photo used with permission of Lurifax