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Walpurgis Eve − and 1 May

The last day of April spells Walpurgis Eve, or Valborg, in Sweden. Spring is greeted with songs and bonfires at public gatherings all over the country. For the more politically active, these celebrations are followed by the demonstrations and heated speeches of 1 May.

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Photo: Ola Ericson/imagebank.sweden.se

Bonfires and singing

For students, Walpurgis Eve is a foretaste of summer. Exams are soon over and only a few lectures remain 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.

Choral singing is a popular pastime in Sweden, and on Walpurgis Eve virtually every choir in the country is busy. In many villages and neighbourhoods, bonfires are lit at dusk, and people gather to experience that rosy red glow in the face from the heat of the fire and the freezing cold at the back. The spring sun may keep people 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.

Last updated: 25 March 2014

Po Tidholm & Agneta Lilja

Po Tidholm is a freelance journalist and a critic based in the province of Hälsingland. He regularly contributes to Swedish dailies Dagens Nyheter and Aftonbladet, the magazine Filter and Swedish Radio. His texts about society, culture and history often revolve around the Swedish countryside and the north of Sweden. Tidholm has written the main sections about how we celebrate in Sweden today. | Agneta Lilja is a lecturer in ethnology at Södertörn University College, Stockholm. Her doctoral thesis, The Notion of the Ideal Record, was a critical examination of collection strategies at an archive specialising in the documentation of customs and traditions. Her research has also included the study of songs and festive customs, and she has written a book about All Saints’ Day and Halloween. At present, she is engaged in gender research. She also writes reviews and appears on radio and tv. Agneta Lilja wrote the sections about the history of Swedish traditions and festivities.