As if I needed any more reasons to love spring in Sweden, we appear to be in the middle of a period of non-stop holidays. Last weekend was Easter, and this weekend is the two-for-one combination of Valborg (April 30th) and May Day (May 1st).
For those of you who went to college or university after the point at which students were supposed to Behave With Decorum and Pay Due Attention To Your Studies, remember Spring Frolics? The weekend of partying and ridiculousness right before exams? The final BOOYAH before cracking down in the library? Well, I’m about to relive that weekend with several thousand Swedes… and without the looming specter of a week’s drudgery in the library to follow.
For those of you who actually did Behave With Decorum and Pay Due Attention To Your Studies without Indulging in Irresponsible Behavior, I’m sure there are a few movies you could watch to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
All I’ve heard about for the last couple of weeks is Valborg, and from what I can tell, Valborg is the real-deal Spring Frolics for all Swedes. Bonfires! Choirs! Day drinking in the park! And lest you start to think that I’m hanging out with the wrong kind of people, it’s not just other 20-somethings who are looking forward to the day of revelry. My middle-aged students—the successful professionals looking to hone their English for a competitive edge—are just as excited.
As with many Swedish holidays, it’s hard to sort out what the original reason for the holiday was: Christian tradition? Pagan customs? Something related to the current amount of sunshine? It’s still unclear, and even the Swedes that I’ve been asking seem to have a pretty fuzzy understanding of the story behind Valborg.
Here are the few facts I have gleaned from the internet and bugging the people around me:
Valborg’s technical name is “Valborgsmässoafton,” which is known in English as Walpurgis Night. More on the “afton” part of the name later. The holiday started out as a pagan grain festival and was later appropriated by the Catholic Church as a religious holiday.
Just in case you didn’t know what a Walpurgis is, she was an 8th century Catholic saint from England who traveled to Germany to be a missionary. Depending on what website you read (and I checked the Vatican’s website for credible information, but no luck), she is the patron saint of rabies, seamen, invalids, farmers and/or the common cold… and/or a protectress against magic arts and/or failed harvests. What can I say? The poor woman’s got a lot on her plate.
Walpurgis Night is also supposed to be a night of witches or a “Witches’ Sabbath.” This might be connected to the legend of Blåkulla, but it’s definitely important to modern-day Satanists. (Scary thought.)
So what is a modern day Valborgsmässoafton all about? If you live in a student city like Lund or Uppsala, champagne breakfasts, hanging out in the park, and fancy student balls can all be part of a typical celebration. If you’re a little bit farther out in the countryside, bonfires are the most important part of the celebration. Very large bonfires. In Lund, a there’s a famous student choir (Studentsångarna) that performs the next day, singing out the winter and singing in the spring.
This whole April 30th/May 1st two-for-one holiday brings me to my final and biggest question about Valborg. We celebrated Easter on Saturday, on “Påskafton,” or Easter Eve, just like Christmas is celebrated on the 24th, on “Julafton,” or Christmas Eve. If Saturday is “Valborgsmässoafton,” why is Sunday just May Day? Shouldn’t Sunday be Valborg and Saturday be Valborgsmässoafton? How can you have an “afton,” or eve, without an official holiday following? When I posed this question to a group of Swedes, I got nothing but blank stares and exasperated sighs in return. Why, my friends? Why?!