Walpurgis night

Why the Swedes greet spring with fire on the night of Walpurgis

In Sweden and Finland, “Walpurgis Night” is celebrated on the last day of April. The day also happens to be the Swedish king’s birthday. As such, it’s a flag day in Sweden, meaning you will see the Swedish flag swaying above all public buildings. (Check out the Swedish Royal Military Orchestra playing Abba’s Dancing Queen on the King’s 70th birthday five years ago below – my favourite Abba tune – I couldn’t resist)

The Swedish Royal Military Orchestra played Abba’s Dancing Queen on the King’s 70th birthday

But really, Walpurgis Night has nothing to do with the king’s birthday. Walpurgis is an old tradition that stretches way back. Since the 15th century, the day has been celebrated in memory of the German saint Saint Walpurgis, an eighth century abbess.

The Swedish flag at Kastelholmen
The Swedish flag at Kastelholmen, Stockholm

The Swedish flag swaying at Kastelholmen in Stockholm. Photo: Björn Tesch/imagebank.sweden.se

Walpurgis Night falls right between equinox and midsummer, a symbol of spring and light. Everywhere in the Nordic countries it was long believed this night was a magical night, when witches and other supernatural things were out and about. In particular, it was believed that the witches this night rode on brooms or goats to the old sacrificial sites. To scare them away, people made noise and lit fires. (In Denmark and Norway this belief later became connected with the midsummer evening, which is called Skt. Hans. So yes, there are differences in traditions across my Scandinavian home countries. Symbolically the bonfires would burn up the old and make room for the new.

A bonfire on Walpurgis Night in my Scandinavian home city of Stockholm
A bonfire on Walpurgis Night in my Scandinavian home city of Stockholm

In addition to Walpurgis fires being festive, they have also had practical functions. In the farmers’ yearly cycle, all the animals that had been inside all winter were to be let out to pasture. It happened that the farmers then also lit fires to protect the cattle from wild animals. In addition, the hayfields were cleared and for that, large fires were needed. Even today, cattle are released around the same time and in several places in the country it is an appreciated event – and another clear sign of spring.

Walpurgis celebrations today are typically not a family occasion but rather a public event, where local groups take responsibility for organising them to encourage community spirit in the village or neighborhood.

Donuts and sima from Finland ready for Walpurgis day
Finnish traditional Walburgis food is the sugar donuts with sima. Walburgis is called Vappu in Finland.

On this evening virtually every choir in the country is busy (choral singing is a popular pastime in all of Scandinavia). The bonfires are lit at dusk, and people gather to experience the singing, the heat of the fire and the freezing cold at the back. The spring sun may keep people warm, but nights are still chilly. In some places you also have fireworks.

A large bonfire on the sea between Denmark and Sweden, my Scandinavian home coast

Large fire is burning over the Oresund while the sun is setting in Malmo Sweden,

Once the fire dies, many will move on to local pubs. The fact that Walpurgis Night is followed by 1 May − a public holiday in Sweden − means that people are not afraid of partying a bit.

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You can see the Swedish Royal Military Orchestra playing Abba’s Dancing Queen below: