On April 30, Sweden celebrates “Valborg” by lighting bonfires to welcome spring and Lola A. Åkerström shows you what to expect.
Valborgsmässoafton (known as “Valborg” or “Walpurgis Night”) welcomes the arrival of spring. The celebration was named after Saint Walpurga who was an Anglo-Saxon missionary in Germany in the 8th century, and its roots are pagan – lighting fires to ward off malevolent spirits. Historically, bonfires were lit along with causing a ruckus with drums, banging pot lids, and screaming to ward off predators and supernatural spirits before animals were put out to pasture for the first time on May 1st.
Today, it is now celebrated publicly regardless of religious beliefs mostly in the Nordics, Northern European countries, and the Baltics.
If you find yourself in Stockholm on April 30th, head across Djurgårdsbron (Djurgårds Bridge) towards the world’s oldest open air museum and zoo, Skansen, on the island of Djurgården for the best bonfire in town. Nowhere beats Skansen which has been holding one of the biggest and oldest Valborg festivals in Sweden since 1894.
A typical Valborg celebration at Skansen starts between 2pm-3pm with a welcome speech by the chairman of ceremonies. Then the crowds are serenaded by traditional spring songs sung by both professional and student choirs including orchestras, and sometimes opera singers and ballet dancers.
Like clockwork at 8:45pm since 1974, a famous Swede or local gives the spring speech, and by 9pm, hot flickering embers fill the dark skies as a massive bonfire is lit. Valborg usually ends with some spectacular fireworks displays over nearby Gröna Lund.
In other parts of the country, celebrations start mid-afternoon with an array of choirs singing spring songs, speeches, and then the lighting of fires.
April 30th also happens to be King Carl XVI Gustaf’s birthday so make your way down to the Royal Palace earlier in the day to catch some marches and military displays. It is also one of the few times when Swedes raise flags all over the country in a symbolic display of patriotism to pay their respects to the king.
The university towns of Gothenburg, Uppsala and Lund boast spectacular bonfires that draw thousands of current and recently graduated students who can be spotted in a sea of white graduation caps resembling sailor hats.
All forms of herring, gravlax, beer, and aquavit (a form of liquor) are usually consumed in massive amounts during Valborg especially by university students who seize the opportunity to party and revel. Nettle soup made from weeds of the same name is also drunk to warm you up because the weeds are some of the first edible vegetation to appear once snow melts away.
The day after Valborg, May 1st, is a public holiday – International Worker’s Day or Labour Day – so head over to Humlegården (a huge park) in Östermalm, and you may run into some marches.
Depending on the weather, concerts and picnics are held all over town.
You can view more photos from previous Valborg celebrations here.