Traditional May Day celebrationsMay Day is related to the Celtic festival of Beltane and the Germanic festival of Walpurgis Night. May Day falls exactly half a year from November 1, another cross-quarter day which is also associated with various northern European pagan and the year in the Northern hemisphere, and it has traditionally been an occasion for popular and often raucous celebrations.
As Europe became Christianized, the pagan holidays lost their religious character and either changed into popular secular celebrations, as with May Day, or were merged with or replaced by new Christian holidays as with Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and All Saint's Day. In the twentieth and continuing into the twenty-first century, many neopagans began reconstructing the old traditions and celebrating May Day as a pagan religious festival again.
OriginsThe earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian times, with the festival of Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane. Many pagan celebrations were abandoned or Christianized during the process of conversion in Europe. A more secular version of May Day continues to be observed in Europe and America. In this form, May Day may be best known for its tradition of dancing the maypole dance and crowning of the Queen of the May. Various Neopagan groups celebrate reconstructed (to varying degrees) versions of these customs on May 1st.
The day was a traditional summer holiday in many pre-Christian European pagan cultures. While February 1 was the first day of Spring, May 1 was the first day of summer; hence, the summer solstice on June 25 (now June 21) was Midsummer. Fading in popularity since the late 20th century is the giving of "May baskets," small baskets of sweets and/or flowers, usually left anonymously on neighbours' doorsteps.
GermanyIn rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of a Maibaum (maypole). Young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: "Tanz in den Mai!" ("Dance into May!"). In the Rhineland, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a maypole, a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. Females usually place roses or rice in form of a heart at the house of their beloved one. It is common to stick the heart to a window or place it in front of the doormat. On leap years, it is the responsibility of the females to place the maypole. All the action is usually done secretly and it is an individual's choice whether to give a hint of their identity or stay anonymous. May Day was not established as a public holiday until 1933. As Labour Day, many political parties and unions host activities related to work and employment.
FinlandCelebrations among the younger generations take place on May Day Eve, see Walpurgis Night in Finland, most prominent being the afternoon 'crowning' of statues in towns around the country with a student cap.
May Day is known as Vappu, from the Swedish term. This is a public holiday that is the only carnival-style street festivity in the country. People young and old, particularly students, party outside, picnic and wear caps or other decorative clothing.
Some Finns make a special lemonade from lemons, brown sugar, and yeast called "sima". It contains very little alcohol, so even children can drink it. You can also buy a similar product in all stores. Some Finns also make doughnuts and a crisp pastry fried in oil made from a similar, more liquid dough.
Balloons and other decorations like paper streamers are seen everywhere.
SwedenThe more traditional festivities have moved to the day before, Walpurgis night ("Valborgsmässoafton"), known in some locales as simply "Last of April".
The first of May is instead celebrated as International Workers' Day.
Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) is a traditional spring festival on 30 April or 1 May in large parts of Central and Northern Europe. It is often celebrated with dancing and with bonfires. It is exactly six months from All Hallows' Eve.
The German term is recorded in 1668 by Johannes Praetorius (writer) (de) as S. Walpurgis Nacht or S. Walpurgis Abend. An earlier mention of Walpurgis and S. Walpurgis Abend is in the 1603 edition of the Calendarium perpetuum of Johann Coler, who also refers to the following day, 1 May, as Jacobi Philippi, feast day of the apostles James the Less and Philip in the Catholic calendar.
The 17th century German tradition of a meeting of sorcerers and witches on May Day is influenced by the descriptions of Witches' Sabbaths in 15th and 16th century literature.
In the capital Helsinki and its surrounding region, fixtures include the capping (on 30 April at 6 pm) of the Havis Amanda, a nude female statue in Helsinki, and the biennially alternating publications of ribald matter called Äpy and Julkku, by engineering students of Aalto University. Both are sophomoric; but while Julkku is a standard magazine, Äpy is always a gimmick. Classic forms have included an Äpy printed on toilet paper and a bedsheet. Often, the magazine has been stuffed inside standard industrial packages, such as sardine cans and milk cartons. For most university students, Vappu starts a week before the day of celebration. The festivities also include a picnic on 1 May, which is sometimes prepared in a lavish manner, particularly in Ullanlinnanmäki—and Kaisaniemi for the Swedish-speaking population—in Helsinki city.
The Finnish tradition is also a shadowing of the Socialist May Day parade. Expanding from the parties of the left, the whole of the Finnish political scene has adopted Vappu as the day to go out on stumps and agitate. This includes not only political activists. Other institutions, such as the state Lutheran church, have followed suit, marching and making speeches. Left-wing activists of the 1970s still party on May Day. They arrange carnivals. And radio stations play leftist songs from the 1970s.
Traditionally, 1 May is celebrated by a picnic in a park (Kaivopuisto or Kaisaniemi in the case of Helsinki). For most, the picnic is enjoyed with friends on a blanket with good food and sparkling wine. Some people, however, arrange extremely lavish picnics with pavilions, white tablecloths, silver candelabras, classical music and extravagant food. The picnic usually starts early in the morning, where some of the previous night's party-goers continue their celebrations undaunted by lack of sleep.
Some student organisations reserve areas where they traditionally camp every year. Student caps, mead, streamers and balloons have their role in the picnic, as well as in the celebration as a whole.
A scene in Goethe's Faust Part One is called "Walpurgisnacht," and one in Faust Part Two is called "Classical Walpurgisnacht." The last chapter of book five in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is also called "Walpurgisnacht." In Edward Albee's 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Act Two is entitled "Walpurgisnacht."Walpurgis Night (in German folklore) the night of 30 April (May Day's eve), when witches meet on the Brocken mountain and hold revels with their gods..."
Brocken is the highest of the Harz Mountains of north central Germany. It is noted for the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre and for witches' revels which reputedly took place there on Walpurgis night.
The Brocken Spectre is a magnified shadow of an observer, typically surrounded by rainbow-like bands, thrown onto a bank of cloud in high mountain areas when the sun is low. The phenomenon was first reported on the Brocken.—Oxford Phrase & Fable.
From Bram Stoker's short story, "Dracula's Guest," an Englishman is on a visit to Munich before leaving for Transylvania. It is Walpurgis Night, and in spite of the hotelier's warning not to be late coming back, the young man later leaves his carriage and wanders toward the direction of an abandoned "unholy" village. As the carriage departs with the frightened and superstitious driver, a tall and thin stranger scares the horses at the crest of a hill.
In some parts of northern coastal regions of Germany, the custom of lighting huge fires is still kept alive to celebrate the coming of May.
In rural parts of southern Germany, it is part of popular youth culture to play pranks such as tampering with neighbours' gardens, hiding possessions, or spraying graffiti on private property.
In Berlin, traditional leftist May Day riots usually start at Walpurgis Night in the Mauerpark in Prenzlauer Berg. There is a similar tradition in the Schanzenviertel district of Hamburg, though in both cases, the situation has significantly calmed down in the past few years.
Singing traditional songs of spring is widespread throughout the country. The songs are mostly from the 19th century and were spread by students' spring festivities. The strongest and most traditional spring festivities are also found in the old university cities, such as Uppsala and Lund, where undergraduates, graduates and alumni gather at events that last most of the day from early morning to late night on 30 April, or sista april ("The Last Day Of April") as it is called in Lund and often Uppsala. More modern Valborg celebrations, particularly among Uppsala students, oftentimes 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 favourable.
In Uppsala, since the mid-1970s, students also go rafting on Fyrisån through the centre of town with home-made, in fact quite easily wreckable, and often humorously decorated rafts. Several nations also hold "Champagne Races", where students go to drink and spray champagne or somewhat more modestly priced sparkling wine on each other. The walls and floors of the old nation buildings are covered in plastic for this occasion, as the champagne is poured around recklessly and sometimes spilled enough to wade in. Spraying champagne is, however, a fairly recent addition to the Champagne Race. The name derives from the students running down the downhill slope from the Carolina Rediviva library, toward the Student Nations, to drink champagne.
In Linköping, the students and public gather at the courtyard of Linköping Castle. Spring songs are sung by the Linköping University Male Voice Choir, and speeches are made by representatives of the students and the university teachers.
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. Another major event is the gathering of students in Trädgårdsföreningen to listen to student choirs, orchestras and speeches. 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 Umeå, there is a tradition of having local bonfires. During the last years, however, there have been a tradition of celebrating Walpurgis at the Umeå University campus. The university organizes student choir song, there are different type of entertainments and also a speech by the president of the university. Different stalls sell hot dogs, candies, soft drinks etc.
The NetherlandsWhile Walpurgis is not celebrated in The Netherlands due to their national Koninginnedag falling on the same date, the small island of Texel celebrates a festival known as the 'Meierblis (nl)' (roughly translated as 'May-Blaze') on that same day, when bonfires are lit near nightfall, just as on Walpurgis. Though the local folklore may have tainted its true meaning over the years there is still a possibility that this was once a Walpurgis night. These days it is seen as a symbolic start for the upcoming warm weather. Winters in the Netherlands tend to be strongest in January and February; the May-blaze is a symbolic festival to drive away the last bits of winter with bonfires which are lit all over the island.
ConclusionSo would our heathen ancestors have celebrated Walpurgis Night? Yes and No. I have already
Sigrblot. It is said that Walpurgis Night is the beginning of summer and we know that Sigrblot is the Summer finding Holiday. The end of the month of Einmanudur and the begining of Harpa (The Norse equivalent of May), which in the modern calendar would fall on about April 14th. Now I know I already recommended substituting Ostara with Sigrblot for those who wish to follow Norse Paganism instead of the general neopagan structure laid down by Wiccan tradition. But I will also say the same for Beltane/May Day. Those two holidays seem to be combined into Sigrblot. Though since Walpurgis Night is celebrated in Germany and Valborg is celebrated in Sweden, especially Upsala, I would suggest those holidays are what Sigrblot turned into. It is quite possible that the traditions of large bonfires, the drinking of sparkling alcohols, the feasting, and the praising of those of higher education are ancestral memories of the peoples. Those were probably common festivities our ancestors would have done at Sigrblot. It has been mentioned again and again that Walpurgisnacht is the Witches Sabbath. The night where the pagan people go out into mountains and do working of magic. This is simply the small cults still practicing the summer finding. Though it is possible this is quite a powerful day for magical working. Sigrblot has been attested as a celebration which Odin is honored above all. Odin in known for his power in magical working and also for his quest for knowledge. This would have been a festival to honor those of high status in the community especially in academic achievement.