The Connection of a 8th-Century Saint and Finnish May Day

In Finland, May the first is known as vappu (Finnish) or as vappen (Finnish Swedish), and it is one of the four biggest holidays in the country. Sometimes it’s translated into English as Walpurgis night (as opposed to May Day). I’d always just shrugged my way past that weird translation until I ran into the history of vappu: the phrase comes from Saint Walburh’s Day.

Saint Walburh was an English nun, missionary, and abbess in the 8th century. She was a part of Saint Boniface’s famous mission to German lands beyond the old Rhine-Danube frontier. The tidbit on Walburh below comes from Kathleen Herbert’s work:

“For example, St. Walburh trained at Wimborne in Dorset, then went with her two brothers to join the German mission. She became abbess of the double monastery of Heidensheim, which had a distinguished scholarly record. Her feast day is May 1st, so in her district the rites of Spring become traditionally celebrated as Walpurgisnacht. This is not a sarcastic joke but a tribute to her power, ranking her locally with such mighty ones as St. Michael and St. John the Baptist.”

– Kathleen Herbert, Peace-Weavers & Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society

Clearly Saint Boniface is the more prominent character of the two in history, but it’s intriguing to me that Saint Walburh’s name is still, well over a thousand years after her death, attached to a spring festival celebrated on the day of her canonization. (Granted, it helps that May Day had long been celebrated as one of the transition points in the yearly cycle; cf. Beltane).

So, in a minor way, even though we mostly don’t care or remember in the middle of everyday hullabaloo, we keep passing her name to future generations. That’s more than Saint Boniface can boast in Finland.

I sometimes wonder how much else in our culture that’s passed on without remark has similar hidden histories. I suspect more than we’d imagine.

Juhannus Bubbly Sm

Anyway. Hyvää vappua! Glada vappen! Happy May Day!

Herbert, Kathleen. Peace-Weavers & Shield-Maidens: Women in Early English Society. Anglo-Saxon Books, 2013, p. 44.

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.