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The name 'Walpurgis' (Valborg in Swedish) comes from the English Saint Walpurga, who travelled to promote Christianity across the rest of Europe and particularly Germany. But although she gives her name to the festivities which Sweden borrowed from its German neighbours, bonfires have been lit at the start of spring for centuries beforehand, as a way to celebrate the long-awaited end of winter.
Some Christians in northern Europe celebrated the saint on May 1st as that's the day she was canonized, and this was also the time farmers across the region would traditionally put their animals out to pasture. The religious feast day became blended with older rituals aimed at cleansing the land and ensuring fertility during the coming summer. Today, May 1st is a public holiday, and the valborgsmässoafton (Walpurgis Eve) celebrations on April 30th retain an important role in the Swedish calendar despite shedding its Christian roots.
A local celebration in Sickla Gärde on the outskirts of Stockholm. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT
Bonfires were traditionally lit as a way of warding off evil spirits and predators such as wolves, and villagers would also try to scare them away by making a loud noise through banging drums, ringing bells, and shouting.
These days, any ruckus is more likely to come from crowds of students, for whom the date is also a chance for a party after the spring exams, before things start to get serious again ahead of the summer revision season.
Other key features of any Walpurgis celebration include a speech from a prominent local figure, and choral singing (brush up on the lyrics to 'Vintern Rasat Ut' or 'Winter has Fallen Away' if you want to be able to join in). Larger festivals will also offer food (nettle soup is a traditional delicacy) and drinks as well as other kinds of musical performances, often rounded off with a fireworks display. Some will have a political flavour, because of Labour Day the following day.
By coincidence, April 30th is also the birthday of the Swedish king, so you'll see plenty of Swedish flags raised as a sign of respect, and if you head to the area around the Royal Palace in Stockholm during the day you might catch some celebratory parades.
Many local councils and neighbourhoods organize bonfires (valborgsbål or majbrasor) in parks, so if you want a low-key festival, check out your municipality's homepage to see what's happening near you. Otherwise, we've rounded up some of the bigger and more novel celebrations across the country in the list below.
Students typically spend the day picnicking, barbecuing and drinking in a local park. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT
One of the biggest and oldest Walpurgis celebrations in the country is hosted at Skansen, Stockholm's open air museum on the leafy island of Djurgården. The music (traditional choral singing) begins at 3pm, with special events through the day and the bonfire lit at 9pm on the Solliden terrace, offering spectacular views over the city. This is a great option for families, as it's possible to make a day of it by visiting the Scandinavian animals, farmsteads, and replica of a 19th-century town to really feel like you're stepping back in time. Be aware of the 140 kronor entry fee (60 kronor for under-15s), although anyone with a valid student ID can get free admission.
Closer to the city centre, the festivities at Riddarholmen kick off at 7.30pm with the bonfire lit an hour later. This gives you the chance for impressive photos of the fire in front of the city hall.
Or down at Rålambshovsparken in Kungsholmen, a huge family-friendly celebration is taking place from 7pm with a bonfire lit at 8.15pm, food and drink, and children's activities.
Slightly out of the centre, one of the largest bonfires is held at Hammarbybacken, which will be lit at 7pm, but events such as pony rides are on offer for children from around 5.30pm.
Any students looking for a party, or curious visitors keen for a taste of the 'real' Valborg, should head to Uppsala. The unique part of this event is a raft race along the city's Fyris River from 10am: students build and decorate rafts which they then sail down the water on, while thousands gather to watch from the banks. Then, the student nations host traditional lunches of herring and snaps – if you're just visiting, it's possible to partake in this part of the tradition at the Uppsala Konsert & Kongress.
At 3pm, in front of the University Library you can watch (or take part in) the Donning of the Caps. The Vice Chancellor waves her own white cap as a signal of spring to the students gathered in the square, who in turn wave their own and then put them on. This is followed by a performance from a male voice choir on the library steps. Later in the evening, there are two large bonfires: one at the Royal Mounds in Gamla Uppsala, lit at 9pm and followed by fireworks, and one at Valsätrakyrkan also lit at 9pm, with music and a DJ later in the night.
At the other end of the scale, if you want something more peaceful, take the boat out to Grinda, a serene archipelago island just two hours from the city centre. Their Walpurgis celebrations include a bonfire, lit at 8pm, with the island inn offering special deals on accommodation if you choose not to camp or stay in the hostel.
University city Lund is home to one of the biggest events in the entire country; last year 30,000 people descended on the city park (Stadsparken) to celebrate the arrival of spring to the southern city. Things kick off with picnicking throughout the day; this is known as spontanfesten or 'spontaneous party' since there are no official organizers, but like most things in Sweden, it's actually fairly well planned. The picnics last until 3pm when things get set up for the official celebrations. These begin at 8pm with a bonfire, music, and later a fireworks show. Find information in English here.
Walpurgis is big in Lund. Photo: Johan Nilsson/SCANPIX/TT
Meanwhile in Malmö, there's plenty planned in the Folkets Park. Some of the city's favourite food trucks will gather for a street food fest from midday onwards as part of a week-long spring festival, with music and other activities before the bonfire gets lit at 8pm
In Sweden's second city, one of the best known traditions is the Chalmerscortégen (The Chalmers Cortège), a carnival parade run by the Chalmers University of Technology. It's been going since the 1900s, with around 50 floats representing a satirical take on major events that have taken place over the past year. Each April, thousands gather to watch the parade make its way through the city streets, and it starts at 6.15pm.
Gothenburg's Student Association also hosts a celebration in Trädgårdsföreningen from 2pm, with musical performances and speeches from university groups.
And in the evening, the biggest fire will be in Slottskogen, where 'witches' will light the bonfire, and plenty of activities are on offer for families and people of all ages. The celebrations start from 4pm with the fire lit at 8.30pm.
The celebrations often finish with fireworks. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT
Linköping: Another student spectacular, this celebration is hosted in Borggården, next to Linköping Castle, from 3pm. There's singing, the donning of the caps, and speeches, but no bonfire this year due to a fire ban. Earlier in the day, students hold a champagne and strawberry breakfast in the Trädgårdföreningen park.
Sundsvall Norra Berget: The northern city's open air museum provides an atmospheric setting for the celebrations. The bonfire is lit at 6pm, and there will also be a small food and crafts market, and activities for children from 5.15pm.
Karlstad: At Mariebergsskogen, the fire will be lit at 8.15pm with views out over the water, more singing, and plenty of food and drink.
Luleå: In the far north of Sweden, there's more reason than ever to celebrate the warmer months, and it's also one of the most beautiful spots to do so. In the Gammelstaden church town, a Unesco World Heritage site, the celebrations begin at 18:30 and include sheep shearing, for a real taste of the older farming traditions. The bonfire is lit at 9pm.
Article first published in 2018 and updated for 2019