Every year on April 30th Swedes celebrate the fact that summer is just around the corner by lighting massive bonfires in the name of an 8th-century German abbess, St. Walpurga, or Valborg in Swedish. Valborg is actually on May 1st, a röddag (a red day/bank holiday), but the bonfires are lit on Valborgsmässoafton (Walpurgis Evening, afton means evening).
Valborg is an example of a namnsdag (name-day). At one time Swedes would refer to events using namnsdagar (name-days) rather than calendar dates and even today most calendars and diaries in Sweden include namnsdagar. For more information about namnsdagar and a complete list of name-days click here.
Valborgsmässoafton has been celebrated in Sweden since the Middle Ages and, along with Midsommar, is one of two Swedish holidays which still resemble their pre-Christian origins. On Valborg (May 1st) farm animals were let out to graze and so the fires were lit the night before to scare away predators, ward off evil whilst also cleansing the land of the dried and dead of winter. People also fired guns, shook cowbells or yelled and screamed to the keep the predators at bay!
Today, it is still a popular gateway to long and warmer days. Few modern Swedes know, and even fewer care, much about the origins of the festival. Nevertheless, they cherish it and so most Swedes turnout to watch a bonfire being lit on Valborgsmässoafton.
Valborgsmässoafton celebrations are not family occasions, but public events. Most municipalities organise the construction of the bonfires, some of which are really enormous with very large crowds and a carnival-like atmosphere, although there can be some long speeches. Much nicer, in my opinion, are the smaller bonfires next to the water in small villages and hamlets, where there can be an almost spiritual feel to the gathering.
Singing and fireworks
The bonfires are lit at dusk and then, once the speeches are over, there is often a firework display. Most of the trees will not be in leaf, so the fireworks look especially impressive seen through the twilight silouette of the trees.
Swedes love to sing. At large events there will usually be a concert by a large choir. At smaller events a gubbe (an elderly Swedish man) will rally the crowd into singing some uplifting Swedish folksongs. The outdoorsy Swedes, perhaps clutching a Valborg beer, enjoy singing along as they dream of better weather around the corner.
A good time to visit Sweden
Valborgsmässoafton is a good time to visit Sweden. It is like getting a second spring as the trees come into leaf, but with the benefit of longer days. If you are visiting Stockholm, pop along to Skansen, a large open air museum, where tradition oozes and they build what is quite possibly the country's largest bonfire. It really is some genuine Swedish countryside smack in the middle of downtown Stockholm and is one of the best ways of learning about traditional Swedish culture.
For students, Valborgsmässoafton is a foretaste of summer as exams will soon be over and only a few lectures remain before term ends. If you want the wild student version then pop across to Uppsala or Lund, the two biggest university towns in Sweden. Students guarantee your day will be filled with music, joviality and as much beer as you imagine. There are also rumours of nubile bodies rolling down hills. Perhaps.
Food for chilly nights...
The nights are still chilly so you might get offered a bowl of nässelsoppa (nettle soup) to warm you up, although once the fire fades most Swedes drift off to pubs or to friends' parties, knowing that the next day is a röddag (red day/bank holiday), so that people are not afraid of partying into the night.
Valborg is a name day that occurs on May 1st, but it is usually only referred to as första maj (May Day) these days. In common with many other countries some Swedes regard första maj as a day to celebrate workers' right and so they take part in marches carrying banners. For most Swedes though it is a day to simply chill.
There is no particular food associated with Valborgsmässoafton or först maj, but if the weather is good Swedes may have a barbecue or, if not, perhaps a nice sill (herring) lunch.
I like to serve vitlöksspäckad lammstek (garlic-studded roast lamb), scented with lemon and rosemary around this time of year. I do recommend being bold and serving it pink, so that the lamb is beautifully moist and with bags of flavour. Even better is to serve the lamb with some ramslökspesto (wild garlic pesto) for a wonderful double dose of garlic.
Whether you are celebrating Valborgsmässoafton, första maj or May Day Bank Holiday, have a fabulous break.
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