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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

April A-Z: Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgisnacht bonfire 
The first time I heard of this festival was in reading Goethe's Faust. It seems to me to be a cross between May Day and Hallowe'en: it falls on the night of April 30th into May 1st and is when witches are 'abroad'. It's celebrated in various European countries including Germany, Finland and Sweden.

It's interesting (to me, at least) that in many places, this night is celebrated with a large bonfire, which also forms part of traditional Beltane (or May Day) celebrations. Walpurgisnacht bonfires seem to be about scaring away spirits and witches while the people celebrate, while the Beltane bonfires seem to be more a symbol of purity and of fertility. Cattle would be driven between two fires at Beltane to purify them, and newlyweds would jump over a bonfire to bless their union and make it fertile.

Another similarity is in the decoration of the house with greenery or fresh flowers. This is (or was) practised in some European Walpurgisnacht celebrations and is often part of Beltane practice. Of course, greenery is used in many pagan-originating festivals, as both these clearly are. It's also significant that the 'may', or hawthorn is usually blossoming at this time, and it seems natural that there is a sense of the world re-awakening with the spring. Clearly, such a feeling is manifest in the new-blossoming trees and hedgerows, so the use of such natural decorations isn't greatly surprising. In some parts of Sweden, it used to be common for the young people of the village to collect greenery to decorate the exteriors of all the village houses. In an interesting cross-over to another festival, the payment for this greenery-collection was eggs!

The big difference between these two festivals is the belief that the devil, and/or witches, and/or evil spirits wander the world on this night. This is part of the Walpurgisnacht tradition, but is not associated with Beltane. In the system that includes Beltane, this belief is clearly part of the festival of Samhain (Hallowe'en), Beltane's opposite (since they are six months apart, at opposite sides of the wheel of the year). In both cases, people traditionally dress up in scary costumes - possibly to confuse the real scary things into leaving them alone, or simply to celebrate the spookiness of the occasion.

Have you seen or taken part in any Walpurgisnacht celebrations?

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