Bonfires, Bulbs and Bursts of Color – Swedish Spring

As many of you know or have read, Scandinavian winters can be long, dark and cold. Here in Sweden, springtime marks the important renewal of light and hope springs eternal. One thing I love is that it feels as if one day you have gone to sleep and the next you awake to a dramatic burst of color as the bulbs begin to flower all over Sweden. It is quite spectacular really.

To mark the momentous occasion when light returns to one’s life,  the beginning of spring in Sweden starts on April 30th on  Walpurgis Eve or Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish. The official holiday is May 1st, but the celebration begins the night before.

Walpurgis (also spelled Walburgis) is celebrated in many countries in Europe, and Sweden is no exception. Valborg (Swedish spelling) has been celebrated in every village and city throughout Sweden since the Middle Ages. Valborg ushers in spring and honors the life and sainthood of an 8th-century nun, St. Walpurga.

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Like many Christian celebrations, Valborg has both pagan and Christian roots.  In the days before Christianity took hold,  farmers were willing to do just about anything to insure a good crop. After all, a failing crop was the difference between life and death. At the beginning of spring each year, farmers attempted to ward off evil, ensure fertility and cleanse the land of winter. Farmers prepared the soil and nurtured it by burning all the dead dry wood, brush and grass to invite new fertile soil to emerge.

Then along came Walpurga.  As with most stories from ancient lore, St. Walpurga’s story is varied depending on who is telling it. From what I could gather,  Walpurga was a nun who is said to have performed 2 miracles during her life, saving a child from starving with 3 sheaves of wheat and calming a rabid dog.  A third miracle, which resulted in her canonization, is said to have occurred after her death.

The story goes that on the day that Walpurga was buried, the rocks making up her tomb started oozing a healing oil.  The oil was seeping from the relics that were buried with her.  The healing oil provided miraculous cures for ill people and became so significant that Walpurga’s body was reportedly removed from the tomb, dismembered and distributed around Europe to help spread the miracle.  I could not find a clear explanation as to why the church would dismember her when the oil was coming from her relics, but I digress . . .

As a result of the healing oils coming from her tomb, Walpurga was canonized on May 1, 870, and became eternally tied to the pagan springtime rituals on April 30th. Today she is considered to be the saint that protects against storms, diseases and plagues, rabies, famine and failed harvests – she is essentially the patron saint of springtime.

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Photo credit: Thorskegga

My experience of  Valborg today, is that it feels akin to what we call a block party in the USA.  I have been told that bigger cities celebrations are more like a carnival, and the student cities are like an all out, city wide, drunken party, but the celebrations that I have attended are sweet gathering of family, neighbors, and friends.  People picnic, drink, sing songs. The kids play and then the main event, the bonfire is lit.
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The bonfire may be small, medium or large in size. Some are burned on land, others out on the a barge on the water.  No matter where it is or the size of the fire, the bonfire is the star of the event.  Growing up in California where the grass is often quite dry and prone to brush and forest fires, I had never seen a bonfire up close. They are hot, and powerful, and oddly, a bit enchanting.

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A bonfire burning out on the water.

What really struck me though as an American, and a lawyer by trade, was the active participation of children of all ages in the lighting and tending of the bonfire.  Children assisted with the initial lighting and then continued to search for things to throw on the blaze. It was like a treasure hunt for flammable items. Not only were they participating, they were playing near and around the fire as it burned. Not a helicopter parent in sight. In the USA not only would each city erect barriers to keep everyone except the expert at bay (and let’s face it, to avoid any liability) but, the majority of parents would not allow their children to lend a hand or play near the fire.

I took comfort though knowing that this celebration and children’s participation in it, have been going on for longer then the USA has been a country. The Swedes seem to know what they are doing. And boy did the kids have fun.

After the fire had burned down, a group of older Swedes began singing odes to spring  – songs inviting spring to please hurry and to bring sun, flowers, hiking. Songs about the joy of being outside after a long dark winter.
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I could not understand many of the words of the folksongs, but it didn’t matter.  The singing lent a nostalgic feel to the event, particularly because it seemed to be an older person’s gig.  It was as if there is a societal code at work. The young people burn away the old and prepare for the newness of the world, while the elders remind everyone that people have been welcoming spring in this way for centuries. It was a perfect ending to a lovely evening.

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  • Reply annette @afrenchcollection May 3, 2018 at 1:06 pm

    What’s with the dismemberment and healing oil? It doesn’t make sense does it. I love learning these ancient stories and traditions but I agree they often don’t seem to make any sense. I wonder whether over the hundreds of years snippets of the information or reasoning is lost. Thanks for the brief history lesson 🙂 #FarawayFiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design May 3, 2018 at 1:11 pm

      Right?! That was disturbing to me. One version made Walpurga out to be a witch – not a saint at all! I am not a very religious person so the ways that the church adapted the pagan rituals fascinates me. Thanks for reading and commenting. #farawayfiles

  • Reply Tanja May 3, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    I’ve heard of Walpruga, as a witch:) interesting to read #farawayfiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design May 3, 2018 at 6:34 pm

      I saw one account of her as witch too! Fascinating isn’t it how these things develop?

  • Reply Annabel May 4, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    I love reading about these stories! They get so blurred and changed through history. Great photos! #FarawayFiles

    • Reply Niche Travel Design May 6, 2018 at 11:31 pm

      Right? I love learning the history of a place and its traditions. Thanks for reading.

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