Valborg 2013: Experiencing a Swedish Tradition
Map of Sverige
This article is about the history of a Swedish tradition called “Valborg” and my experience with this awesome holiday. Valborg is a tradition in this part of the world that dates back to the Middle Ages and has a close relationship with Swedish culture.
Valborg is a historically significant tradition in Scandinavia, but in particular, in Uppsala, Sweden. It is adored by Swedish students from Uppsala (a) to Lund (b). The entire town shuts down for the celebrations and people come from all over the world to participate. In fact, I met people who came all the way from Spain, Austria, France and Greece for the festivities! The celebrations span three days. In order, they are called “Kvalborg,” “Valborg” and “Finalborg.” People get together for bonfires, boat races, barbeques and “cap-tipping” events. Valborg is not quite a holiday, but more of a national and regional tradition. However, it sure seemed like a holiday in Uppsala.
What tradition did I learn about?
This past week I learned about and participated in an awesome tradition called “Valborg.” Although it is practiced in several Northern European countries, it is particularly beloved by Swedes. It begins on the 29th of April and continues through the 1st of May. The actual Valborg event is held on the 30th, while those on the 29th and 1st are called “Kvalborg” and “Finalborg,” respectively. Early in the morning on April 30th the sides of the Fyris River, which runs all the way through Uppsala, are lined with people watching the boat races. These “races” are actually more like fashion shows, but they are still fun to watch. People get together in groups of three or four and build a raft together. The idea is simple: make something that floats, that can make it all the way down the Fyris River, and that looks awesome! I feel like the bonfire and barbeque traditions do not need explanations, but perhaps the cap-tipping does. Several hours after the boat races I went with a massive group of people to the entrance of Carolina Rediviva, the university library built in 1841. We stood outside and watched a huge group of students and alumni march up the steps of the library, where they stood still for a few minutes. Above them was a huge electronic sign counting down the time to zero. It reminded me of counting down the time on New Year’s Eve. When the clock struck zero they all removed the white student caps they had been wearing (which resembled sailor hats) and waved them above their heads. The whole crowd started cheering as the students and alumni walked down the steps of the old library and back into town. Then, after watching the cap-tipping, I got together with some friends of mine for some good old fashioned American football and barbeque!
Why does the community have this tradition?
Valborg really began as an extension of an earlier European tradition called May Day. May Day is a fairly old celebration which began in Germanic Europe before the spread of Christianity. May Day was seen as a time to celebrate the changing seasons. In particular, it focused on the worship of the Roman goddess, “Flora,” who was the Pagan flower goddess. Then, roughly in the year 870, an English missionary named Walpurga was canonized by Pope Adrian II in Rome on May 1. This means that she was deemed a saint by the foremost religious authority of the Holy Roman Empire, which is a pretty big deal! In fact, it was such a big deal to the newly Christianized Swedish kings that they made the day its own holiday. The word ‘Valborg’ is really more of an abbreviation of ‘Walpurgisnacht,’ meaning “Walpurga’s night.” Although ‘Valborg,’ as it is now known, began as a celebration of the religious accomplishments of Saint Walpurga, it has actually returned to the original theme of May Day. By this I mean that in Sweden (now one of the world’s least religious nations) people see Valborg as more of a celebration of warmer summer days than as a religious holiday.
Is this tradition connected to its environment?
Absolutely! Modern Valborg and May Day in Sweden focused almost completely on the environment. Before the canonization of Walpurga, when Swedes celebrated May Day rather than Valborg. May 1st was a joyous celebration of warmth. At the time, though, that meant something very different from what it does now. Back then people were excited because it marked the beginning of the best harvesting season and that they would no longer be threatened by Sweden’s harsh winter climates. Although the harvest and survival are no longer issues for most Swedes, Valborg is still a celebration of warmth and the flourishing of Swedish ecology. It represents the beginning of summer, the melting of the snow, and (usually) the point at which Swedes no longer have to wear heavy wool jackets to step outside.
The different foci of Valborg and May Day are environmental as well. They reflect different social or religious environments. Consider that back when it was known as May Day, the social and cultural environment was quite unique. Most Scandinavians of the day were fairly poor pagan farmers with little education or outside communication. When May Day was replaced by Valborg it was largely because the Scandinavian religious environment changed to a more Christian and devout one. Now, although the tradition is still called Valborg, it is actually closer to May Day in terms its focus. The history behind these kinds of traditions can tell you a lot about a place and the people occupying it. I feel that learning about the history of Valborg has informed my opinion of Swedes and Swedish culture much more than I expected it to—Not including the fact that it is an EXTREMELY FUN TRADITION!!