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May Day balloons In Finland, the May Day celebration has developed from its pagan origin as a feast of spring into a nationwide urban carnival.

Worldwide, May 1st is celebrated as an international working class holiday. In addition to this, in Finland, it is also a traditional spring feast of university students, and the name day of the catholic saint Walburga, commemorated in former times, when Finland still was a catholic country.

Being a mixture of these traditions, the custom of celebrating May Day has spread throughout the country with many people taking part in it, if only to welcome the long awaited spring.

In Finland, May Day is a noisy urban festival, mainly celebrated in towns and cities. In Helsinki, the capital of Finland, the celebration starts on May Day Eve, as the downtown streets, pubs and restaurants start to fill with people in party mood.

The carnival atmosphere is enhanced by people wearing funny or frightening masks, hats, wigs and other party accessories. Colourful balloons, pompoms, party blowouts, serpentine throws and sprays, noisemakers and horns of various kinds are also popular, especially among children. For some people, the festivities also include a rather heavy consumption of alcohol, in the true Nordic fashion.


Pagan spring feast

Witch sabbath In pre-Christian Europe, among rural folk, May Day was celebrated as the beginning of spring season, honouring the pagan fertility gods and deities of the crops and fields.

The day marked the victory of spring over winter and darkness made way to sunlight. On the eve of May Day, evil spirits were believed to roam around and witches and demons would gather on hilltops in their annual meeting of witch sabbath.

In picture on left: details from "Witches sabbath" by Hans Baldung Grien (ca 1484 - 1545).

Formerly in Finland, an ancient springtime feast called hela was celebrated in May. At this time, the cattle was left out on pasture for the first time after the long winter. During hela, bonfires were burnt and loud noises made by blowing horns and clanging bells in order to ward off evil spirits and witches and to protect the cattle from wild animals. People gathered around the fires to celebrate and dance, drinking beer and mead.

Lilies of the valley In modern day Finland, May Day is also celebrated as the beginning of spring, although it may still be snowing here and there. Weather permitting, people may head out to have a picnic or just a walk in the wild to spot the nature's first signs of spring. Many restaurants open their outdoor patios for the customers to enjoy the first warming rays of the spring sun.

St. Walburga's day

On Christian era, May 1st was fixed as the feast day of the 8th century catholic saint Walburga. English-born daughter of a Saxon king, Walburga served as an abbess in the convent of Heidenhem, Germany, where she also died. The Finnish name for May Day, Vappu, and its Swedish name, Valborg, are derived from her name. Saint Walburga became known as the protector against witchcraft and sorcery. During the Middle Ages in Germany and Scandinavia, the May Day Eve (called Walpurgisnacht in German) was believed to be a night of witch revelry.

Labour Day

20th century factory worker Towards the end of 19th century, the working classes in many countries were struggling for equal rights and duties. On May 1st, 1886, North American workers declared strikes across the United States and Canada to press for an eight-hour working day.

At the demonstrations held in Chicago during the first days of May, a number of striking workers were killed by the police in a riot. In addition, seven police officers were killed in a bomb explosion at the Chicago haymarket. Although the actual bomb-thrower was never identified, four trade unionists were found guilty of the act and executed.

Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin To commemorate these "Haymarket Martyrs", May 1st was declared an international workers holiday by the International Working Men's Association in 1889 in Paris. The red flag was adopted as the symbol for the working class movement, representing the blood of the martyrs who died for the working-class cause.

Also today, the organized workers in many countries celebrate May Day, carrying their trade union banners. In Finland, besides the working class and the leftwing parties, also other political parties assemble and give speeches during the May Day to promote their cause.

Student feast

Havis Amanda The 1st of May is also an official holiday of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki. To mark the day, the university students wear a traditional white student cap, which they have received as a symbol of their graduation from the upper secondary school (high school).

Nowadays, the May Day Eve is the highlight of May Day celebration for the university students, culminating at six o'clock in the central Market Square of Helsinki, where they gather around the fountain-statue of "Havis Amanda".

In picture on right: fountain-statue of "Havis Amanda"  —  the symbol of Helsinki.

This statue, representing a mermaid-like figure of a young maiden sculpted by the artist Ville Vallgren in 1908, is regarded as a symbol of Helsinki, "the Daughter of the Baltic Sea". The students have a tradition of capping the maiden statue with a white student cap, while large crowds flock to watch the event.

Engineering student cap Roaming along the streets are also the overall-clad engineering students of the University of Technology, either conducting various practical jokes (I heard that a group of them once welded the wheels of a tram to the rails under the nose of its unsuspecting driver) or selling their self published May Day-magazine consisting of rather inferior jokes.

In picture on left: the white technology student cap with its characteristic black tassel.

On the following May Day morning, the students gather in a downtown park to have a picnic and listen to speeches given by Student Unions. Male choral singing and brass band music may be heard performed at these events, both being traditional May Day entertainment. During the recent decades, also other people have started to attend the event, making it a yearly May Day tradition.


May Day lunch table setting After the (sometimes heavy) celebration on the May Day Eve, many people in Finland attend a traditional May Day lunch, also called "herring lunch", either at home, in restaurants or outdoors in a form of picnic, if the weather allows.

In Helsinki, the capital of Finland, large crowds gather in public parks to eat, drink, sing and enjoy each other's company.

In picture on right: colourful, informal May Day lunch table setting.

Since it is commonly thought that people suffering from hangover have a special craving for salty foods, a typical May Day lunch usually includes many salty dishes, like herring pickled and marinated in various ways, gravlax, Jansson's temptation etc. To accompany the cold salty dishes, served as appetizers and hors d'œuvre, a schnaps is always served.

May Day fritters and jelly doughnuts Special Finnish May Day dessert is the May Day fritter, a round, deep-fried pastry made similarly to funnel cakes. The fritters are coated with icing sugar after frying. The perfect drink to accompany the fritters is the Finnish mead. Mead has been a traditional May Day drink in Finland since the 18th century.

In picture on left: May Day fritter and jelly doughnuts  —  favourite Finnish May Day treats.

Various mixed punches along with Swedish punsch were the favourite May Day drinks in restaurants of the 19th century, but nowadays champagne or sparkling wine and mead are the most popular drinks consumed during May Day celebration.

You will find recipes for dishes suitable to be served on Finnish May Day here.


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