Today and tomorrow are a weird time in Finland – especially in non-Covid times. There are three festive occasions rolled into one package: Walburgis’ eve, the students’ feast and the day of the workers’ movement. Walburgis’ eve (in Swedish the eve of Walburgis Mass) is a general party-out evening that has long since lost connections to its roots. Historically, it was the time when pre-Christian Germany and the North celebrated the coming of spring, burned bonfires to either make cattle fertile or keep witches away (and probably did quite a bit of procreation).
The next layer is Christian – Walburga was a German saint. She helped fight away disease and witches and was canonized on the first of May in 870. Ergo, St. Walburga’s Mass. April 30 in present-day Finland is much closer to the pre-Christian roots. The bonfires have been moved to midsummer (St. John’s) as no-one in their right mind would want to stand outside in the cold at this time of year (bonfires need to be lit quite late to have any effect as it is still fairly light around 10 pm). But greeting the coming of spring in a happy festive mood (including some procreation, I am sure) is still the ticket. The streets of Helsinki are full of crazy Finns drinking sparkling wine straight from the bottle. It is quite a sight. Students were long a central element of the elite of the country. Before 1860, the number of university students was under 400 (out of 1.5 million inhabitants) and even at the end of the 19th century it had risen to only 1.000 (of 2.5 million). Many of the traditions still alive reflect this status. One of them is the student hat. Its original function was to make students recognizable, because czar Nikolai I was fed up with students taking part in demonstrations. This white hat was originally seen as a symbol of oppression, but about five decades later it became the official summer hat of the students. This hat was donned when the university began its summer break (April 30 after classes) and put on the hat-shelf only in late September when studies resumed. And because of this, everyone who has matriculated from high school (Gymnasium) now puts the hat on at 6 pm on April 30 – and wears it on May 1, after which it is forgotten for a year. All the university cities have their own traditions on April 30 and many of them include placing a white hat on a well-known statue while thousands cheer (and drink sparkling wine). Paraphernalia (balloons, paper streamer, funny glasses, student overalls) is essential, as are not-so-stylish-but-fun clothes.
The third element is that May 1 has been celebrated by the workers’ movement from the late 19th century. It was originally a march for sobriety, as workers had traditionally celebrated the coming of spring on the day in a less than orderly manner. Gradually, other social and political questions took over and the marches became important occasions for showing the power of the movement. May 1 has been a day off for everyone since the 1940s, which made it possible for the marches to become a major event. They were at the height of their popularity in the 1970s and early 1980s when leftist sentiments were strong – albeit the movement had by that time divided into several factions with their competing marches. Nowadays, you will still find remnants of this tradition, but it feels more like going through the motions. You can imagine the tensions between these three traditions during the eve and day of May 1. Fortunately, the tensions have pretty much dissolved and it has become a party for one and all. Spring has finally come, even if the weather is still cold and there is not a leaf to be seen. But it is has come.