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May Day celebrations: vappu in Finland

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Many celebrations in Finland are private. People celebrate in the privacy of their own home or summer house. These include Mid-Summer and the Finnish Independence Day. May Day is an exception. It’s a public celebration. 

Although this year, May Day (vappu in Finnish) cannot be celebrated in the normal way, we thought we’d take a look at the traditional May Day celebrations in Finland. We’ll also briefly talk about how Finns celebrate vappu under these extraordinary circumstances. 

May Day celebrations have long roots

Like many other modern-day celebrations, vappu has really long roots. 

From the Middle Ages onwards, May 1 celebrations honored Saint Walburga. She was an Anglo-Saxon missionary to the Frankish Empire in the 8th century. The Finnish word for May Day, vappu, comes from her name. Vappu can also be a female first name in Finland.

May Day celebrations also have pre- or non-Christian origins. In many parts of Europe, early May is the start of the summer or the growing season. 

This new start was celebrated in many ways. In Finland, this is when cattle were let out to pasture. The day included may traditions. Their purpose was to ensure good milk yields. 

In some areas of Finland, people burned bonfires. These days bonfires are more common at Mid-Summer. 

May Day celebrations in Finland: the labor movement

Today, vappu in Finland belongs particularly to university students and workers. It’s also a day off for everybody.

The association with workers dates from the latter half of the 19th century. 

May 1 was traditionally the day when employment contracts of workers in the US were renewed. On May 1, 1886, workers in the US organized a large general strike. They were demanding eight-hour workdays. The strike turned violent. A year later, an international meeting of social democratic parties from around the world declared May 1 to be a memorial day for those that had perished.

The Printing Workers Association of Helsinki (Helsingin kirjatyöntekijöiden yhdistys) organized the first vappu celebrations in Finland that were clearly associated with the labor moment. They held their celebrations in 1890. 

The first labor union vappu parade was held in 1895 in Helsinki. The first political parades in Helsinki and Tampere were held in 1898.

So, during the last century vappu in Finland has clearly been connected with the labor movement

On May Day, this means parades and speeches. Parade participants have come from different labor unions and different, most often left-leaning political parties. 

In the past, these parades have been rather large. During the past couple of decades, though, there have been fewer participants. Also, the nature of these parades has changed somewhat.

As the traditional labor movement has diminished in importance, other interest groups have stepped in. These days May Day parade participants often include different types of organizations and associations in addition to the traditional trade unions.  

May Day parade of 1974 (photo: Harri Ahola/Helsinki City Museum, image G38250)

May Day celebrations and university students

Before the international labor movement connected worker rights to May 1, students in Finland stated celebrating the day. 

Students of the early part of the 19th century celebrated May 1 by singing songs outdoors. For the latter part of the century, May 13th was a more important day for students. But May 1 regained its position as the main spring celebration in the 1920s. 

These days university students start celebrating early, often at least a couple of weeks before. That’s when you’ll start seeing students in their student overalls all over the place. 

It is the most important student celebration of the year. It is particularly important for those studying technical fields at a university. These studets are called teekkari. First-year technical students get their teekkarilakki (a special cap for technical students) at vappu. Until then, they aren’t a full-fledged teekkari at all.  

All university cities have a variety of student events, parties, and picnics for days before May Day and also a couple of days afterward. In Tampere, technical students are in the main role.

Technical students lowered into the river for a dip in Tampere, vappu 2016 (photo: Katja Nevalainen/Flickr)

May Day celebrations in a normal year

In a normal year, May Day celebrations in Finnish cities usually start when a local statue receives a university student hat on its head. This happens usually at 6 pm on May Day eve, April 30. From there on the celebrations really start. 

In Helsinki, the statue that receives the hat is Havis Amanda. A different student organization has the honor each year. In the past, students climbed up Manta. These days students used a crane to help as Manta is too brittle to handle climbing.

Tens of thousands of people come to watch Manta receive her cap in a year when the weather is nice. Even in bad years, the crowds are huge.

The following day, on the actual May Day, people gather outside in the parks to have a picnic. In Helsinki, Kaivopuisto park is jam-packed. 

Many come really early to reserve a spot. Quite a few have their own traditional spots they’ve celebrated vappu at for years, even decades. Picnic foods as well as picnic tables, chairs, and tents can be really elaborate. I’ve seen a chandelier hanging from the ceiling of a party tent. 

Another popular way to celebrate vappu is to have May Day lunch or brunch at a restaurant. Usually, reservations have to be made weeks if not months in advance. 

May Day celebrations in Finland involve quite a lot of alcohol. For example, Finns buy more than four times the amount of sparkling wine during the week leading up to vappu than they normally do. You can read more about Finns and alcohol on a separate post here

There are also a number of traditional foods that we eat at Vappu. One of them is the deep-fried, sugar-coated pastries called munkki.

Vappu 2020

May Day celebrations in Finland usually mean that people, even thousands or tens of thousands of people, congregate together. This year it’s impossible. So, what can we do instead?

Well, we can 

  • still watch Manta receive her hat. That’ll happen in virtual reality. You can watch it online here starting at 5.45 pm on April 30. There will also be a virtual concert by JVG. You can sign in and participate in the celebration and in the concert via your own avatar.
  • celebrate vappu virtually via webpages set up the Interior Ministry of Finland and the police. These pages include a series of virtual vappu events all over Finland you can watch or participate in.
  • have a physically distant vappu picnic at home.
  • celebrate certain vappu events in the fall if you are a university student in Finland. Apparently students in Tampere, Turku, Lahti, and Lappeenranta have postponed some events to the fall. All of them, however, also have virtual events now. 

Have a great vappu you all!

Some sources

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