|You can almost smell it, can't you? Breathe deep. Smells nice.|
The history of Valborg is a tricky one. It’s been around for a long time. Medieval long time. It came to Sweden via Germany. Probably. Although, there could also be ties to Beltane, an Irish tradition that was being written about when Vikings were still harassing those poor island folk. Although it was probably celebrated long before the Irish had converted and the Vikings started giving them a hard time. I’m not a medievalist so will leave that to someone else to figure out the connections, if there are any.
Let’s stick with the Germany story for right now. Of course, even that story is a bit tricky. The eve of May 1 was one of those nights where the witches were out in full force. Just like the Swedish witches who headed to Blåkulla to party with the Devil, the German witches headed to Brocken to do the same. The Germans waited for better weather though and flew off on the night of April 30. The Swedes were a little earlier and headed out on Holy Thursday. Of course, everyone knows that the best way to scare away witches is to start large bonfires and maybe shoot guns into the air.
But the Catholic Church doesn't like witches and the Devil. Witches are in league with the Devil and we can’t be having that. Churches liked to remind people of that evil consort by painting witches and Devils on the walls and ceilings. There are still plenty of examples of these paintings in medieval churches throughout Scandinavia. Anyway, it just so happens that Saint Walpurga was canonized on May 1 around 870. She’d been dead for about 100 years at this point, but miracles are hard to make happen so it took her a while to be recognized.
May 1 is a handy day though. It had long been an important day in plenty of medieval towns and cities that was usually celebrated with a party the night before. And because it was an important day already and now also the day of a saint’s canonization, it became a lot easier to smush those pagan beliefs together with those Catholic beliefs and pretend all along that we’re just a nice Christian folk doing nice Christian things for a nice Christian God.
By the time it came to Sweden from Germany, it was Christian-y and most likely brought with it the bonfires. Those bonfires are useful because they help scare away evil and protect the Swedish livestock. It’s right around this time of year that livestock is let back out to pasture so it seems like a good time to make sure those cows are healthy, happy, and wolf- and witch-free.
|Just a little reminder to all of the witches out there. Swedes will burn you.|
|Uncle Sven probably broke those pallets too. He's such a clutz.|
Nowadays, it’s usually local community groups organizing the bonfires. Sometimes the municipality. Sometimes a local service organization. It's a kid-friendly, family event. I even saw attempts at s'more making this year. Attempts. Often the bonfire is used as a fundraising activity. School classes will be selling hotdogs to raise money for their class trip, for example. It’s a good way to get the students interested in the holiday early. And in a much more innocent way. Because once they hit high school, the holiday becomes an excuse to start drinking.
|Those are some s'more making coals right there. Too bad the Swedish |
children had long since burned their marshmallows in the angry
flames of the bonfire. Rookies.
Interestingly enough, the holiday’s reputation for being a drinking holiday (let’s be honest here though, all holidays in Sweden are drinking holidays) is, according to Nordiska museet, tied to the working class of the 1800s. Alcoholism was a serious issue for many of the working class and so it shouldn’t be too surprising that the labor movement and the temperance movement were strongly connected here in Sweden. That Valborgsmässoafton falls the night before May Day, the International Workers' Day, is a handy coincidence.
While the holiday used to be dominated by university and college students way back in the 1800s and early 1900s, that has begun to change. Today you’ll find high school students wearing their white student caps, dressed for spring despite the cold weather, drinking rosé in outdoor cafés. It’s like looking back in time, seeing all of the Stureplan brats when they were just brats minus the Stureplan.
|Thumbs up from the high school student trying to walk |
into a bar with a Systembolaget bag full of booze.
Welcome to Sweden. And yet another pagan/Christian/secular Swedish holiday.