Walpurgis (pronounced Val-purr-gess-nach-t) Night is April 30th (though it ends by the evening of May 1st. It is a holiday celebrated in Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Typical holiday activities include the singing traditional spring folk songs and lighting of bonfires. People celebrate it in Germany by dressing in costumes, playing pranks on people, and creating loud noises meant to keep evil at bay. Gee, sounds somewhat like Halloween to me.
Many people also hang blessed sprigs of foliage from houses and barns to ward off evil spirits, or they leave pieces of bread spread with butter and honey, called , as offerings for phantom hounds. This is to avoid bad weather and ensure good crops, farmers might put out bread with honey and butter in the fields. Extra care was taken to protect cattle from harm. Okay, not so like Halloween and yet, like it, too.
Other customs done during this time:
The lady of the house would customarily leap over her broom, plus old brooms would be burned. Walpurgisnacht fires were also used to burn anything that had worn out over the previous year, and straw men were made and endowed with things like illness and disease, even bad luck and burned in the fires as well. Another twist of pagan custom concerned that children would gather greenery from juniper, hawthorn, ash and elder trees, and hang this around the house and barn. Once upon a time these were considered offerings to the goddess, now they were used to frighten off witches and other evil spirits.
In Finland, Walpurgis Night and May Day are effectively merged into a single celebration usually referred to as Vappu. It is among the country’s most important holidays, although, initially, Walpurgis Night was celebrated by the Finnish upper class. Then, in the late 19th century, students (most notably engineering students) took up its celebration.
The origins of the holiday go back to pagan celebrations of fertility rites and the coming of spring. After the Norse were Christianized, they combined it with the legend of St. Walburga, an English-born nun who lived at Heidenheim monastery in Germany and later became the abbess there. Walburga was believed to have cured the illnesses of local residents in the area. Walburga is traditionally associated with May 1 because of a medieval account of her being canonized upon the translation of her remains from their place of burial to a church circa 870. Although it is likely that the date of her canonization is purely coincidental to the date of the pagan celebrations of spring, people were able to celebrate both events under church law without fear of reprisal.
On St. Walburga: St Walpurga was born in Devonshire, England in 770 AD. As a young woman she was sent to Mainz, Germany as a missionary under her uncle St Boniface. After leaving Mainz, she went to Heidenheim, Germany, where she was made the abbess of the local convent. It was said her brother was also the the head of the neighboring Monastery, and that after his death, she took over his position. In her time she oversaw the baptizing of many pagans in the local Heidenheim Brunnen.
After her death, the walls of her tomb began oozing a healing oil. Because of this miracle, she was canonized. They chopped up her body and dispersed across Germany and France to spread the miracle to everyone. Her feast day is May 1, and she is considered the Patron Saint of Coughs, Storms, Hydrophobia and Sailors.
The symbols associated with St Walpurga are the Spindle, Grain and a Dog. There are spindles and sheaves of grain carved into monuments or shrines devoted to her. These symbols also overlap Pagan symbols; grain for good harvest, dogs (not cats) are considered the “familiars” for German Goddesses… and of course, the spindle is associated with Frau Holda (or Holga) of Grimm’s Fairy Tale fame.