Arriving in Helsinki on a first of May a traveller will find Finland in a state he might not have expected from that northern country known for its tranquillity and silent population. On this day thousands of people fill the streets: young and old alike are wearing white graduation caps, university students walk around in colourful overalls with sewn-on applications and seemingly endless amounts of families and friends are enjoying the first rays of sun having picnics in the parks. It is vappu – and Finland is throwing one of its biggest parties in the years’ festivity circle.
As in many other European countries the first of May is the feast of Labour Day. But vappu stands for much more than this only festivity of the workers movement: the first of May in Finland is also highly celebrated as the day of students, as a welcoming-spring-party and as the Finnish version of carnival.
Roots and development of vappu
The Finnish word vappu
derives from Walburgis (finn: Valpuri), name of a British nun living in the 8th century, who, after her death, has been declared saint on a first of May. The feast day of saint Walburgis is celebrated since the Middle Ages commemorating the transfer of her relics. She is honoured as a guardian of crops, a protector against witchcraft, a nurse and a mentor for children.
In agricultural Finland vappu
has played an important role in former times, due to the powers associated with the saint Walburgis. On her feast day the farmers used to do rituals like ringing bells on their fields or burning bonfires in order to safeguard their livestock and chase away bad spirits. With passing time the festivity developed away from its’ rural and religious background and gained a new, political dimension: the celebration of Labour Day.
In the end of the 18th century the social democrats in Finland had wanted to establish a common spring holiday for the whole country which came to be the first of May. In 1890, following the example initially set by the American working class movement, Finland created a national Labour Day joining the feast to the countries spring festivity on first of May. Therefore until nowadays there can be seen many demonstrations throughout Finnish cities on vappu
As big as the mixture of festivities on the Finnish first of May, as vivid is the combination of traditions celebrating that special date.
The students start their celebrations of vappu in the evening of April 30th: they gather around the statue of the mermaid Havis Amanda, symbolical personification of Helsinki, standing on top of a well in the middle of the Helsinki marketplace. First they wash the statue afterwards they place a graduation cap on her head. In many other Finnish cities prominent statues receive caps as well, followed by the recent or former graduates themselves starting to wear their graduation caps until the next day. Current university students additionally use to wear their traditional university overalls in the colour of the faculty they study in. These are personalised by patches and all kind of other applications.
Being the welcoming-spring-festivity and Labour Day at once many Finns use this official holiday and flag day as an occasion for a first, big outdoor picnic. Therefore especially the parks of the cities are flooded with celebrating groups of all ages. Around vappu
the outdoor season starts also for coffee shop owners and organisers of concerts and other events underlining the welcoming of spring idea.
The Finnish first of May has also traits of a little carnival although it’s surely not comparable with the dimension of carnival celebrations in other countries. This is obviously neither the main purpose of vappu
. Nevertheless high schools use to release satirical newspapers for vappu
and some people take the occasion to dress up in funny costumes. Parades take place throughout the town and shop windows are decorated with balloons, garlands and paper streams. Some venues organise special vappu
events including humorous speeches, costumes, carnival decoration and music. The unspoken dress code for those events is: slightly funny and/or with the own, proudly worn graduation cap.
Typical food and drinks
Of course the first of May festivities are accompanied by traditional food and drinks which are exclusively consumed around vappu
. Some people attend May Day lunch at restaurants or prepare typical dishes at home. Big parts of the vappu
meal consist of salty food, just as herring and other plates with fish. This might help one or the other to recover from his hangover. On vappu
much alcohol is consumed. Actually in many Finnish cities drinking alcohol outside of bars and in public is prohibited throughout the year. But on vappu
, which forms as a special holiday an exception from the rule, people tend to run wild.
Besides beer and all kind of alcohol one of the typical beverages is sima
, some kind of homemade mead. Amongst its main ingredients count lemon, dry yeast, hops, sugar and raisins. Due to the limited fermentation the drink includes very low alcohol and as the typical vappu
drink it is also made suitable for children. Sima
is traditionally accompanied by pastries like munkki
can probably be best described as a special kind of doughnut and tippaleipä
reminds of funnel cake. Both show similarities with typical carnival choux pastries from other countries.
After all, the confused traveller who comes to Finland on a first of May might ask some white capped passer-bys what is happening here today. And he might get four different answers, a munkki or a glass of home-brewed mead.
“Welcome to Finland! It’s vappu!”