HELSINGIN SANOMAT international

A belated explanation why we did not appear on Monday...


By William Moore
Photos: Liisa Takala, Juhani Niiranen, Päivi Kekäläinen / HS

One lucky student gets to give Havis Amanda a bath before she receives her
cap.
One lucky student gets to give Havis Amanda a bath before she receives her cap.
Monday was May Day. May Day is, as one might expect, preceded by May Eve. This much is common knowledge. In Finland - and in other Scandinavian countries - May Eve is, however, a pretty big occasion for carousing and general mayhem. It is probably the nearest thing this country can produce to a carnival. May Day has been adopted here as a kind of students' and workers' festival. It goes under the name Vappu, and involves much student boozing and celebration both on the eve and on the day itself. On May Day there were (well, there still are, but to a lesser extent owing to the twists of history and the triumph of capitalism) marches by all the parties from the hardline Communists and the Social Democrats even to the conservatives of the National Coalition Party, and politicians and union leaders making speeches to the bleary-eyed faithful.
   There are links of a kind with the old “moving day” tradition on May 1 in the United States, when rents and labour agreements were renegotiated. It was a day that became almost automatically associated with strikes and other unrest. In 1889 May Day was named an international day of processions and demonstrations by the Second Socialist International in Paris. The first such procession in Helsinki - complete with red flags and banners - was seen in 1897.
   Now any Finn can tell you what Vappu is. He or she will probably say it is a spring festival, mention the workers and students, note that it is more urban than rural, and that it involves among other things the “capping” (with a white student's cap) of that rather racy statue of Havis Amanda in Helsinki's Market Square. He may mutter that the eve can be riotous (the police pray earnestly each April for rain or sleet to keep people at home), and that the age of the most intoxicated celebrants gets younger with every passing year. There might even be a mention of sima, a mead-like drink that some people still make at home, but which is mostly bottled these days, and certain other Vappu foodstuffs. Your Finnish guide may also tell you that traditionally you go out (somewhat hung over) to lunch on May Day itself, after - and this is only if you are a diehard traditionalist and a resident of Helsinki - having drunk champagne and sung rousing songs in Kaivopuisto Park in the early morning. The lunch is almost inevitably absurdly overpriced, but what do you expect?
White caps and bubbly - the essential ingredients for the academic Vappu.
He's a professor, and she's got a Ph.D., but on May 1st, the real talent is
being able to drink before breakfast.
White caps and bubbly - the essential ingredients for the academic Vappu. He's a professor, and she's got a Ph.D., but on May 1st, the real talent is being able to drink before breakfast.
   Vappu marks the beginning of summer, even if it snows on the day itself. The chairs come out on beer terraces and at street-side cafés, and it is the done thing to huddle outside nursing a cold beer, regardless of the temperature. Children, the young-at-heart, and the terminally plastered sometimes wear silly masks and often carry balloons. Much other rather kitschy party stuff is sold, too, and is then swept up by the city's refuse collectors on May 2nd. The balloons - a shiny helium-filled Pikachu lookalike seems to be this year's thing - have a beneficial effect on hangovers, as they prevent one's children from whining and thus worsening one's morning-after headache. This medicinal feature perhaps accounts for their incredible prices.
   The students at the various Universities of Technology in particular regard Vappu as an occasion when everybody should laugh heartily at their sometimes rather strange sense of humour. They produce magazines filled with jokes (often stolen from internet mailing lists) that generally involve below-the-waist or toilet-oriented punchlines and gentle racial slurs. I've never quite worked out where the profits go, but suspect they finance next year's Vappu beer fund.
   Alko, the Finnish State-owned alcohol retail monopoly, probably ranks Vappu third on their list of mega-events, after Midsummer and New Year, although I do not have the statistics to hand. Certainly it is a pretty liquid festival, and always has been, ever since it began here in the 19th century.
   And there, for me at least, lies the enigma of Vappu. The average Finn can tell you plenty about the present model, but precious little about the history of the event, or even who Vappu was, let alone why we are celebrating her - for she is a she.
   You can call me an old curmudgeon, but the general lack of interest in the background to the festival has always struck me personally as a minus. I'm not much of a Vappu fan, if that wasn't obvious already. Somehow it has always seemed to me like an upstart sort of event without strong traditional roots - nothing going back to primitive spring fertility rites, no history of sacrificing virgins or other rituals, no Druids, no witches, not even any jolly dancing around the Maypole to give the day some kind of authentic street-credibility. It almost seems “pasted on” - a modern addition hastily papered onto Labour Day and with the students getting in on the act, too, as students traditionally are party animals. There is also a slightly depressing lemming-like quality about the urge that drives one and all to get totally rat-faced on one day of the year - in order to “have fun”.
   Vappu is one of those things that divides me from the real Finns, for all that I carry a Finnish passport. I expect it always will. For a start, having attended school and university elsewhere, I lack the one vital non-alcoholic ingredient for a successful Vappu campaign - the white cap worn by high school graduates here (and this means graduates of ANY age, with yellowing caps worn as a badge of pride) on this one day in the calendar. This, to be absolutely fair, is one of the most endearing aspects of Vappu - a symbolic recognition of the values of education over and above mere wealth or social standing.
Other statues join in the merry-making. This trio are called The Three
Smiths, and they work next to Stockmann's department store in downtown
Helsinki. It's a dangerous job, dressed like that.
Other statues join in the merry-making. This trio are called The Three Smiths, and they work next to Stockmann's department store in downtown Helsinki. It's a dangerous job, dressed like that.
   Anyway... since the average Finn-in-the-street cannot tell you, what precisely IS the real history behind Vappu? The clue comes from Germany. May Eve there is celebrated as Valpurgisnacht, a well-known witches' sabbath (and not so very different from the modern Finnish version in that respect). Valpurgisnacht still involves riotous goings-on up on the Brocken, the highest point of the Harz mountains. Anyone who has read their Goethe's Faust will know what I'm talking about. Still, as far as I know, when the rest of Central Europe was celebrating the coming of spring in this manner hundreds of years ago, the Finns were not. They had not the foggiest idea who Walburga was, and no intention of raising a glass to salute her memory.
   Walburga, the original Vappu, was born in around 710 AD, probably in the English kingdom of Wessex, and she died 69 years later in Heidenheim, in what is now Germany. She was an abbess and a missionary, and played an important part in St. Boniface's organisation of the Frankish church in the 8th century. Her life was naturally a good one and she ended it in charge of a mixed monastery of monks and nuns, but what singled her out for canonisation was that after her death and the subsequent interment of her relics (on May 1, 870) in the Church of the Holy Cross in Eichstätt, strange things began to happen.
   Her shrine became an important pilgrimage site because of the clear liquid, referred to as a “miraculous oil”, that oozed from the rock on which her tomb was placed. A fine collection of 16th- to 20th-century phials for its collection and distribution in tincture form is still kept at Eichstätt. Some twenty years after the interment, Walburga's relics were inspected and diffused, some to the Rhineland, others to Flanders and France, and this spread her cult status far and wide.
   At this point we move into the realm of speculation. There are two possible theories. On the one side we have the possibility that soon after her death, the memory of her became confused with that of Waldborg, a pre-Christian fertility goddess, and the witches' sabbaths became known as Valpurgisnacht, without materially changing their contents. This confusion is not helped by the fact that Walburga is supposed to be a protectress of crops as well as a healer, and in art she is often pictured with three ears of corn in addition to her flask of medicinal oil.
   The other scenario, which seems equally plausible, is that the abbess was seen as a handy tool for quietening down the witchcraft rituals associated with this time of the year. As so often throughout the history of the early Christian church, saints' days and other holy days were often placed strategically in the calendar to counter the effects of “less devout” pantheistic or pagan festivals, and this may be the case here, as St. Walburga and her healing oils were given the tough task of countering the bacchanalian orgies of April 30th.
   This particular dodge might have worked for Christmas (timed to coincide with the very rowdy Saturnalia orgies of Roman days), but at least to judge by the standards of Finnish Vappu, there isn't very much of a devotional aspect to be seen.
   What began in Scandinavia in the 18th century as a civilised at-home celebration amongst the academic set (many of whom had studied in Germany) has changed with time and was adopted here in Finland with the rise of nationalism amongst students in the mid-19th century. All those ideological links are dim and distant memories, however. By the same token, the trade union movement and international socialism no longer carries either the clout or quite the same kind of passionate torch as it did maybe fifty years ago, and Vappu has lost most of its militant leftist aspect. All that we are left with is students and young people getting seriously wasted. I'm not sure St. Walburga would approve at all.
   Summa summarum: The Finns do not know it, but the reason the International Edition did not appear on Monday was that much of the population had been unconsciously knocking back phials of St Walburga's clear liquids or medicinal tinctures, and had overdosed on them. Too much of a good thing, I guess. A bit like the event itself. Roll on Midsummer.

St Walburga (from the Catholic Forum pages)

You will be pleased to learn she is also a protectress against coughs, against famine, against plague, against storms, against mad dogs, their bites, and rabies, and of Antwerp in Belgium, boatmen, Gronigen in Holland, harvests, and mariners and watermen. It doesn't say anything about students or drunks, though.

Traditional Finnish Festivities - the official version from the Foreign Ministry.

A delightful bit of almost totally nonsensical history trivia about May Eve in Norway. The reference to “mayday, mayday” is bogus.

MAY DAY / MAIFEST / WALPURGIS - lots of useful and slightly bizarre information and a good list of links.

An irresistible image of theBrocken Spectreeffect, named after the mountain in the Harz.

A photo of someone on Walpurgisnacht - DON'T try this at home, please!

Havis Amanda without a hat, in fact without a stitch on, but with some suspicious-looking Helsinki students in the background.


Helsingin Sanomat / International Edition 3.5.2000