Today, 30 April, is Walpurgis Eve, called Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish, or ‘Valborg’ for short. The name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century Saint Walburga, and in Sweden this day marks the arrival of spring.
In a cold, dark country like Sweden, residents have suffered through a long, miserable winter. So it is no surprise that the arrival of spring is an occasion to mark. On the evening of Valborg, Swedes usually gather to celebrate together.
The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. However, essential celebrations include lighting a large bonfire, listing to choirs singing traditional spring songs and a speech to honour the arrival of the spring season. Some of the traditional spring songs are titled ‘Beautiful May – Welcome!’ and ‘Longing for the countryside – winter rushes out’. You can see a clip below.
Walpurgis bonfires are an impressive thing to see and are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis, cattle was put out to graze and bonfires lit to scare away predators.
The weather is often unpredictable on Walpurgis Eve. It can be sunny and warmish, or it can still snow on 30 April! Today looks like it’ll be a cold one.
Despite bad weather, Swedes still shiver around the bonfires and ironically celebrate the arrival of Spring.
Just like at Christmas, many Swedes also pimp their homes for Easter. Yellow table cloths, yellow curtains and yellow tulips are common, as is something called a ‘påskris’. Pronounced ‘poskrees’, this is a Swedish Easter tree.
The Easter tree is a bunch of twigs and sticks (usually birch) in a vase with brightly coloured feathers attached to the ends. Some people also hang decorated eggs, colourful ribbons or festive chickens. The Easter tree can be seen all over the country this time of year. Outside shop entrances, in peoples’ living rooms, outdoors in the neighbours’ gardens. It is a very popular decoration, probably because it brings colour at a time of the year when most flowers haven’t yet bloomed in Sweden.
So, what is the origin and symbolism of the Easter tree then? Well, some Swedes say that it symbolises the sweeping away of the winter. The twigs represent a broom and the feathers get caught in the broom as we brush.
Others say that it represents witchcraft. The twigs represent a witch’s broomstick and the feathers indicate flight. This could also be why Swedish kids dress up as witches at Easter and do a kind of ‘trick or treating’ for Easter eggs.
But, apparently the Easter tree has a completely different, and more dubious, origin and symbolism. It dates from the 1600’s. Swedish people at this time were very pious, and used to take twigs and sticks and beat each other with on Good Friday – to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. In the 1800’s and 1900’s, they started to be decorated and became a symbolic decoration for Easter.
In the UK, we celebrate ‘Days’ such as Christmas Day & Easter Day. In Sweden, these days are the bank holidays but there is also a tradition of celebrating on the Eve. In fact, it is the Eve ( ‘afton’) that is the big celebration time. Today, for example, is Easter Eve and it is typically today that families meet for the big meal.
There’s påskafton, Valborgsmässoafton, Midsommarafton, julafton, nyårsafton, trettondagsafton. Why is this? Surely it can’t just be to get extra holiday?
Well, actually it originates from a time before the mechanical clock. In that period, a new day began at sunset rather than at midnight as it does now. In the Medieval times there was an expression – ‘vid kväll ska dag leva’ – which means something like ‘in the evening, shall the day live.’
Scandinavians held onto this tradition even after clocks were invented, and this is why they celebrated their important days the evening before. Now the evenings have, for practicalities sake, become day time activities.
That’s why Swedes celebrate on the ‘Afton’. Oh yeah, and for the extra day’s holiday.
Today, the day before Good Friday, is called in Swedish ‘Skärtorsdag’. The word ‘skär’ means ‘clean’ – and it is a biblical reference.
If you know your bible stories, today is the day when Jesus gathered his disciples together for the Last Supper, introduced communion, and was later betrayed by Judas, and condemned to death on the cross. Prior to the Last Supper, Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. And he washed them clean – a symbolic metaphor for purification and the washing away of sin.
So, today is Clean Thursday. In fact, in English ‘Maundy Thursday’ also relates to the same act in the bible – the act of ritual cleaning is known an The Maundy.
However, in secular Sweden, today isn’t that much about religious observance – it’s more about witchcraft! Today is celebrated by children dressing up as witches and going door to door in their outfits begging for sweets.
This tradition originates from the belief centuries ago that Skärtorsdag was the night of the witches, where these wicked hags would climb onto their broomsticks and fly to a mountain called Blåkulla. It was a night of danger and evil, and Swedish people would bar their doors to their houses and barns and leave outside gifts that would make the witches’ journey more expedient – food, milk, clothes, broomsticks. Today, that translates into the Swedish version of trick or treating.
Playing April Fool’s jokes on each other on the first of April is a tradition in many countries – Sweden included. In fact it is an old tradition – the oldest written reference being in 1392 in Chaucer’s ‘The Cantebury Tales’.
In Sweden, when someone is tricked, the tradition is to say ‘April, April din dumma sill!‘. This translates as ‘April, April you stupid herring!’. This is however not as weird as it might sound. In many countries, such as Italy, France and Holland, April 1st is known as “April fish”. On this day, people try to attach paper fish onto the backs of their victims.
April Fool’s pranks are common in newspapers, with classics such as:
IKEA is getting into the airline business. Furnishing all the flights with Ikea furniture, the name of the airline is FLYKEA.
Swedish supermarket chain ICA introduced toothpaste with the taste of chocolate. It might be brown, but it makes your teeth white.
Burger King introduced a new burger for left-handed people where ingredients were rotated 180 degrees.
I had a look this morning to see if I could identify any April Fools tricks and I found one! The tower of Stockholm’s City Hall was apparently flown in from the far east under a blimp. This is a nod to the new Golden Bridge in Stockholm that was manufactured and shipped in one huge piece from China.
If you manage to find another one, please share here!