Crowds of people stand in the dark looking at a bonfire.
People like to get together around the Walpurgis bonfire. Photo: Lola Akinmade Åkerström/ imagebank.sweden.se

Walpurgis Night

Walpurgis Night falls on 30 April. That’s when Sweden greets spring with fire.

For students, Walpurgis Night – Valborg in Swedish – 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 Night 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 Night 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.

Large crowds of people in a city. In the foreground are four girls with their right arm lifted, holding a white cap.

An (odd?) academic Walpurgis tradition is that many students – in this case from Uppsala University – gather and put on their student caps, normally a white cap with a black peak. Photo: QIMAGE

A hand holding a phone with a Walpurgis bonfire showing on the screen.

Hello spring! Walpurgis is the perfect time to burn last year's dry branches. Photo: Aline Lessner/imagebank.sweden.se

Large crowds of people in a city. In the foreground are four girls with their right arm lifted, holding a white cap.

An (odd?) academic Walpurgis tradition is that many students – in this case from Uppsala University – gather and put on their student caps, normally a white cap with a black peak. Photo: QIMAGE

A hand holding a phone with a Walpurgis bonfire showing on the screen.

Hello spring! Walpurgis is the perfect time to burn last year's dry branches. Photo: Aline Lessner/imagebank.sweden.se

Large crowds of people in a city. In the foreground are four girls with their right arm lifted, holding a white cap.

An (odd?) academic Walpurgis tradition is that many students – in this case from Uppsala University – gather and put on their student caps, normally a white cap with a black peak. Photo: QIMAGE

A hand holding a phone with a Walpurgis bonfire showing on the screen.

Hello spring! Walpurgis is the perfect time to burn last year's dry branches. Photo: Aline Lessner/imagebank.sweden.se

Swedish Walpurgis Night – the origins

Walpurgis was a saint who lived in Germany in the 8th century, and it was Germans who initially brought the Walpurgis Night tradition to Sweden in the Middle Ages.

Back then, the administrative year ended on 30 April. So it was very apt that 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.

Among farmers and peasants, it was an important day in the calendar as the annual village meeting was held, when a new alderman was chosen and eggs and schnapps were served as refreshments. It was also at Walpurgis that farm animals were let out to graze.

Ever since the early 1700s bonfires (majbrasor, kasar) have been lit to scare away predators. People also fired guns, shook cowbells or yelled and screamed to keep the predators at bay.

In some parts of the country, young people went round singing May songs in return for gifts of food on Walpurgis Night. Those who gave them nothing were treated to a ‘nasty’ ditty. Elsewhere, people visited spas to drink the health-giving water and to amuse themselves.