The only May Day I’m familiar with is the distress call made by captains of marine vessels as they face disaster at sea. And by ‘familiar with‘ I mean I’ve watched them on TV from the comfort of my couch. So it was with pleasure that I experienced my first May Day and it wasn’t a disaster at all!
Vapuu is a variation of the name ‘Walpurgis Night’ (Walpurgisnacht), a feast observed in Germany for Saint Walpurga since the 8th century. The celebrations being on 30 April and carry on into the 1 May which is a public holiday in Finland and signifies the start of Spring. It is one of the biggest holidays on the calendar, up there in significance with Christmas, New Years and Midsummer.
On the 30th April, crowds converge on Market Square in white caps, identifying them as university preparation school alumni. The festivities really kick off at 6pm when a white cap is placed on the head of the statue of Havis Amanda by a group of students raised high in a cherry-picker. As her new ‘crown’ was placed on her head this year a large cheer went up from the crowd, a huge glitter bomb went off and the sound of many bottles of sparkling wine opening could be heard all around.
As well as sparkling wine, people drink sima, an alcoholic drink similar to mead, although the honey used in production is now comonly replaced by sugar. The alcohol content is generally so low it is considered okay for children to drink and is usually accompanied by munkki (doughnuts) or tippaleipä (funnel cake).
Helium balloons are common accessories and sellers can be seen on nearly every street corner from the morning of the 30th April. There doesn’t seem to be a particular theme; we saw champagne bottles, life-size superheroes and of course the ever-present Angry Birds characters.
The next day it is customary to have a picnic in the park and we were lucky enough to watch the crowds in Kaivopuisto from the warmth of Ravintola Kaivohuone (Kaivohuone Restaurant) as the temperature dropped down into the low single-digits. We heard there was a sauna set up in the park but the rain drove us back from exploring further. After the company brunch we caught the tram back to our apartment with some friends who helped us drink sima, sparkling wine and eat doughnuts in true Finnish style into the early evening.