Festivities: Vappu

Photo: Visit Finland

Vappu – Between traditions and modern student life

Vappu. The sound of this word stirs up a manifold feeling within the hearts of people in Finland, to workers, office clerks and students alike. To older and younger generations, the carnivalesque celebration has been a central date in the calendars of many generations. But what exactly is vappu (speak: [ˈʋɑpːu])? And where do the festivities that welcome the warmer seasons of the year come from?

Walking around downtown Helsinki on April 30th for the first time sure is a delight. The whole city is on its feet, gathering around the nodal points of the harbour area, the wide open of the senate square and miscellaneous public areas. On no other day of the year Helsinki can be seen as crowded as this, every inch of green space seems to be occupied by casually chatting happy faces. However, vappu certainly is not an exclusive trait of the capital city, bearing the same importance in students’ calendars all over Finland. All student cities are boasting with young people welcoming spring and summer in the best possible manner, namely by enjoying the long-deserved sun after a long-withstood winter, with old friends and the ones made during the celebrations.

Many events all over student cities: white caps and the bustling climax of student year

Over the course of the day, there is talk of Manta here and there, which apparently is a must-see. While car- and fish-enthusiasts might be disappointed, the talk is actually about the unique and beautiful bronze Havis Amanda statue by Ville Vallgren erected in 1909. The statue by the Kauppatori square right at the harbour is beloved by locals and depicts the daughter of the Baltic Sea, thus representing the waterside soul of the city. At six o’clock sharp in the early evening, an elaborate ceremony takes places in which one of the famous white caps that everyone is wearing is placed on the statue’s head. Corks are popped, glasses are clinked, and thus the celebration commences and may go on as long as it pleases. Many parties are organised by the active student associations, vappu being a day in which local and international students mingle and celebrate hand in hand. The next day is reserved for tasteful picnics with friends all over the big parks in the cities, such as in Kaivopuisto in Helsinki. Rumour has it that a vappu-celebration has only been truly successful if one goes to the picnic without an hour of sleep in between.

Students in other university cities of course have their own celebrations. In Tampere, the main happening takes place at the beautiful Central Park Koskipuisto. In Turku, collaborative singing with a choir takes place on the Art Museum Hill Taidemuseonmäki first in Finnish language, only to move on to sing in Swedish at the Lilja statue by the riverside to commemorate both official languages. This lucky statue does not only receive a white cap like her Helsinki-based cousin, but is also groomed with a giant toothbrush.

From Walpurgis Night to Vappu

As to the origins of vappu, the case is clear: at a first glance it sure does not make a whole lot of sense at all. While everyone can tell what is it about and what stands connected to it, few actually understand how it came into being. To sum it up, two major developments can be observed.

The name of the Finnish Mayday celebration is derived from Saint Walpurga, a catholic saint who was officially canonized on the first of May in the ninth century. As with many traditions and holidays, over the centuries a mixture between religious and pagan customs took place, which further got distorted by a phenomenon known as societal development. Celebrations around the Mayday in medieval times carried pagan connotations, as bonfires were burned off to drive away bad spirits. Later on, it became an upper class event that migrated from Germany to Sweden and then to Finland, in which graduates from high schools would celebrate the beginning of the warmer seasons of the year. While back in the days, only people from the upper class would finish high school, nowadays the flamboyant white hats can be seen on the head of almost every sun-hungry local. Because of Finland’s egalitarian school system, the inflationary distribution of white hats among the population has become one of the key markers for the vappu celebrations.

Even more, a seemingly unrelated riot on the first of May in 1886 on a hay market in Chicago took place, which inevitably contributed to the all-embracing societal importance of vappu in Finland. “How so?” one might ask. During the rise of the international labour movement, the first of May has become the commemoration date for the victims of the Haymarket riot and over the years, it developed into the International Labour Day. History strikes again, as this date simply coincides with Walpurgis Day. Until this very day, the biggest workers-processions and demonstrations for workers’ rights take place during vappu. Starting from the old bastion of the workers’ movement in Finland, the beautiful Hakaniemi square, the workers’ procession moves downtown to further demonstrate for their rights.

This mix of old and new, traditional festivities and much-needed societal change through the labour movement created a spirit that nobody could withdraw him or herself from. While nowadays whole families enjoy the festivities, it yet remains predominantly a student happening. Vappu for the student in Finland, be it a local or an international one, is a festivity of joy and friends and the arrival of the sun.

Text: Jens Närger