In Britain, Bonfire Night conjures up childhood memories of sheltering from the driving November rain, eating jacket potatoes while effigies, or ‘guys’, burn on a huge bonfire. Overhead, fireworks crackle with the acrid smell of sulphur – all to commemorate a failed mediaeval attempt to blow up the houses of Parliament. However, Sweden’s Bonfire Night, Valborgsmässoafton (Valborg), is a different story altogether.
Rather than being political, Valborg is originally a religious celebration. In many countries, Saint Walpurga, an English missionary who went to Germany is commemorated on the last weekend of April. However, St. Walpurga’s eve supersedes a much older pagan custom that welcomed the spring.
Welcoming the Spring
In modern Sweden, Valborg focuses on the return of warmer weather more than the memory of a Christian saint. For months, the country has lain under thick ice, and Swedes are keen to greet the sun. Who can blame them? At this time of year, flowers are growing, and buds are appearing back on the trees. What better reason to have a big party?
If the day is sunny, as this year’s Valborg was, Swedish parks and streets are full of people sunbathing and eating picnics. Student towns such as Lund or Uppsala draw the biggest crowds, but most towns and villages stage their own events. Festive cheer sweeps across the country. For many young people, it is the first time they will try alcohol.
As the day closes, huge bonfires light up the cities as choirs sing traditional songs about the spring. Finally, bright fireworks light the darkening sky. To a native Brit, it is nice to stand watching the display without being laden in the winter woollies (and, of course, an umbrella) that are necessary for British Bonfire Night.
The party continues late into the night. For those wishing to avoid the underage drinking that often occurs on this night, it is best to head home early in search of a baked potato!