Walpurgis Night: Why are Swedes dancing around bonfires?

Been invited to a bonfire party this weekend? Wondering what on earth is going on? Swedes are celebrating the spring. Valborgsmässoafton (Walpurgis night in English) takes place every year on the last day of April. Here's The Local's guide to the festivities.

Walpurgis Night: Why are Swedes dancing around bonfires?
Valborg in Lund in 2022. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

What are people celebrating?

Walpurgis night is when Swedes celebrate the end of the harsh winter and look forward to the summer sunshine. It takes its name from Saint Walpurga (‘Valborg’ in Swedish), an English missionary who promoted Christianity in other parts of Europe, especially Germany, who was for centuries remembered on April 30th, but the tradition of lighting fires around this time dates back to pre-Christian times in Sweden. These days it has nothing to do with religion and is mainly seen as a way of celebrating the arrival of spring.

It’s also the King’s birthday, but that’s just coincidence.

Walpurgis celebrations always include a bonfire. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

So what happens?

In most towns around Sweden, Walpurgis night is about a mountainous bonfire and a huge crowd, perhaps alongside a choir singing the traditional Swedish ditty ‘Vintern Rasat Ut’. These spectacles are usually organized by the local municipality. It’s a great chance to spend some time with other members of your community, many of whom take the occasion to come out of hibernation and gather, singing Swedish folk songs and dancing. The bonfire also helps the Swedes keep warm as nights remain chilly at this time of year.

Where are the best places to go?

The most exciting action in Sweden occurs in the nation’s student cities, especially Lund in the south and Uppsala, just north of Stockholm, where revellers take the good weather with a good dose of extreme madness before they hunker down to revise for their summer exams. In Uppsala, this is especially true. People flock from far and wide for the biggest street-party of the year, where students let loose and lose their winter inhibitions and clothes for the first time of the year. In Lund, most of the celebrations tend to be confined to the town’s main park Stadsparken, where students also let loose, but at least in one space.

Stadsparken in Lund. The not-yet-lit bonfire can be seen in the background. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

What is there to see apart from a big fire then?

For many students, the day begins with a champagne breakfast, which inevitably ends up with more champagne splashed around the rooms of the student nations than in champagne glasses. In Uppsala, thousands of eager residents then squeeze up along the walls of the little Fyris River to catch a glimpse of the 100 or so homemade rafts that students have decorated and painted specifically for the event.

With the two miniature waterfalls along the river, half the fun is watching to see if the ‘sailors’ manage to keep dry, or indeed, if the rafts keep in one piece at all. When the waters have calmed and the crowd has moved on, thousands gather in a boozy meeting in one of the city’s bigger parks, seeing in the warmer weather with loud music, dancing, and wild student antics.

In Lund, you bring a blanket, friends, something to drink and then spend the day and evening in Stadsparken. 

In the Swedish capital, the open-air museum Skansen is one of the most coveted venues. It puts on singing and music spectacles next to a giant bonfire, which will be lit at 9pm.

The Uppsala boat race. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Anything else?

Fireworks are also a common sight around the country and if you’re passed a strange-coloured hot liquid, it is probably nettle soup. The weeds pop up when the snow melts in Sweden, but provide a healthy warm snack to keep Swedes’ energy levels up throughout the celebrations.


RECIPE: How to make warm Swedish nettle soup

Walpurgis Night in Lund. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

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Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in Sweden?

This year Thursday, May 18th marks Ascension, making this a three-day week for the many workers in Sweden who take a 'klämdag' off on Friday and give themselves a four-day weekend.

Why is Ascension Day a public holiday in Sweden?

Klämdag literally means “squeeze day” (klämma – to squeeze, and dag – day) and refers to the day that falls, or is squeezed, between a public holiday and a weekend.

Ascension, which Christians believe marks the day that Jesus ascended into heaven, is always 40 days after Easter Sunday, which means that its exact date varies from year to year. The earliest possible date is April 30th, and the latest possible date is June 3rd.

But why does Sweden give people a day off work on this day?

Ascension is actually a holiday in quite a few European countries – Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, France and the other Nordic countries get a day off, although Spain, Italy and the UK do not.

From the 12th century to the 16th, Sweden was a Catholic country. According to high school history teacher and tradition expert Mattias Axelsson, around a third of the days in the Middle Ages were public holidays. 

“With the exception of May 1st (Labour Day) and our National Day (June 6th), all public holidays go back to the Middle Ages,” he told The Local in 2021.

In Sweden, Ascension Day, known as Kristi himmelfärdsdag (literally: Christ’s journey to heaven day) or more colloquially Kristi flygare (Christ flying), has been celebrated since the mid 300s. The holiday originally celebrated around this time was betessläppningen, the day where cattle were let out to graze on pastures.

Since 1924 or 1925, it has been also been celebrated as the national day of sobriety by Swedish teetotallers.

Ascension was also historically seen as the first day of summer in some parts of Sweden, referred to as barärmdagen or “bare arm day”. It’s the first day of the year where women were allowed to go outside without their arms covered.

Gökottor are a traditional Ascension Day activity, which involves going into the forest early on a spring morning, picnic in hand, to wait in silence in hopes of hearing a cuckoo (although you won’t find a lot of Swedes doing that today).

Despite Sweden being a mostly secular society, Swedes still celebrate many religious holidays, like trettondag jul, Easter and Christmas.

Most Swedes don’t really do anything to mark Ascension Day though, they’re just happy to have an extra day off.