Monday, May 04, 2015

Swedish Holidays – Valborg (Walpurgis Night)

I would totally bottle the smell of campfire and use it as cologne. Unfortunately, I’m not a chemist. Or Kramer. Luckily this weekend was Valborgsmässoafton here in Sweden, which means that there were bonfires lit throughout the country. It also means that I don’t need to bottle the smell. For now. Instead, I just haven’t washed my clothes in four days. Being an adult is the best.

You can almost smell it, can't you? Breathe deep. Smells nice.
Valborgsmässoafton, or more commonly Valborg, is another one of those Swedish eve traditions. Remember Christmas Eve? Easter Eve? Midsummer Eve? Valborg Eve is April 30. It’s usually celebrated by setting giant bonfires, drinking too much, and sometimes shooting off fireworks. You may be surprised to know that this is a pretty exciting holiday for students. It might have something to do with the fire, explosives, and alcohol.

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. 
But even if you don’t have any cows itching to frolic in the spring grass, bonfires can come in handy—by burning all that crap you’ve collected over the past year, obviously. Maybe that wooden chair that Uncle Sven broke at Christmas? Or how about all the branches, leaves, and felled trees that are cluttering your farmland? Burn ‘em.

Uncle Sven probably broke those pallets too. He's such a clutz.
Finally, because traditions are difficult to trace and always changing, here’s one more theory about the bonfires. Down south in what was once Denmark, young Skåningar ran around honoring the farmers. They were keeping people fed, I suppose. To do this though, they had to call all the farmers into town. That’s what the churchbells are for, of course. Turns out the churches, or at least the towns, got tired of those ringing bells and put a stop to the clanging of the bells for that purpose. Those DanoSwedes were crafty ones though. Instead of bells they used fire. Big bonfires are visible from quite a ways away and served the same purpose drawing the farmers to the flame like a moth to a, well, to a flame.

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.
Universities throughout the country are hotbeds of Valborg activities. Uppsala is known far and wide for its celebrations. In 2015, the Uppsala police expected 100 000 people to visit the town for the celebrations. On a good day, Uppsala has a population of about 140 000. That’s a whole lot of people for one town to swallow. Students come out in full force wearing their white student caps ready to eat, drink, and make merry. And by merry I mean drink themselves to oblivion while singing, dancing, and maybe rafting down the tiny little Fyris River in Uppsala.

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.
And while traditions change, bonfires do not. They're still great for cleaning, scaring away witches, and making me smell delicious. And that's worth drinking to.

Welcome to Sweden. And yet another pagan/Christian/secular Swedish holiday.

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