A Night of Fire, Witches and Makeshift Boats

It’s a big day today, April 30th; it is the day for scaring off witches and demons and making room for spring. Now, if spring hasn’t started already, we are obviously some place high up North—as high up as Sweden, in fact. In this country, Valborgsmässoafton is celebrated tonight, with great bonfires, drinking—and a couple of other more eccentric traditions…

One thing that sets apart Valborgsmässoafton—Valborg, for short—from other national celebrations is the rather astonishing fact that the Swedes don’t have any special Valborg dish. In fact, this seems to be the only holiday of which the proper celebrating does not include any sort of eating. There is drinking, though, since Valborg is an event that takes place in the evening. As night falls over the northern lands, the Swedes make their way outdoors and gather around great bonfires. Branches and other burnable material is gathered up in the days or weeks prior to the big night—consequently, the bonfire pile becomes the home of various Scandinavian animals seeking shelter from the still-ongoing winter. Check out this (hideous!) photo of some hedgehog babies—it’s been circulating on facebook along with a pleading that people either move the pile or at least rumble it about a bit before setting it on fire tonight.

Valborg belongs perhaps most to students in Sweden. In the university town of Uppsala, the bonfires constitute but the least significant part of celebrations—the famous key elements are rather the home-made boat race and champagne gallop. Despite their names, however, the carnival-float-looking boats bob down the Fyrisån at about hedgehog speed, and the Champagne gallop starts off with hours of snaily queuing. (Swedes love queuing.)

Check out the boat race action in this video:

This is another big deal, the Mösspåtagning (that’s a real Swedish word for “ceremonial putting on of student caps”):

This Uppsala ceremony takes place at precisely fifteen-hundred hours (you can see a pocket watch being consulted in the video above), and afterwards the idea is for the celebrators to head off for the champagne gallop. In practice however it is impossible to attend both events due to the required queuing.

As is the case with many holidays, Valborg is a completely different story historically speaking. The fires—back when they were still the main thing—were intended to scare off witches and demons before the cattle was let out for the summer. Internationally, April 30th is known as Walpurgis Night and is celebrated in other countries as well, including Germany, Finland, the Czech Republic and Estonia (see Wikipedia).

[Swedish version]

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