Anyone arriving in Helsinki on the evening of April 30 having read all those guidebook stereotypes about the surliness of Finns might wonder if they’ve arrived in the right place. The stereotype about drinking a lot might ring true, however. There’s plenty of public bonhomie and laughter, and a great deal of hugging, of each other and of bottles of sparkling wine. Vast bunches of coloured balloons of Disney characters and Moomins tug at their strings, and most of the adult population sport white caps, the symbol of student matriculation here and elsewhere in the Nordic region.
The eve of the May Day holiday, known as Vappu, is a cause of especially wild celebration in a part of the world that relishes the arrival of spring like nowhere else. Snow showers have been known to fall on May 1st as far south as Helsinki, but the occasion acknowledges the extended light, anticipating the long days and delicious possibilities of the summer ahead. The population collectively turns its back on winter for another year, and goes a little crazy in the process.
The celebrations are kick-started with a gathering in the Esplanade Park at 6pm, when those crazy students gather to wash the statue of the mermaid, Havis Amanda, near the Market Square, and with a degree of hilarity that might be hard for any non-Finn to fully appreciate, then proceed to place a white hat on her head. This act is a signal for the really heavy stuff to start and the drinking spills out of the bars and into the streets – one of the few occasions in the Finnish calendar when such alcoholic anarchy is sanctioned.
For many, if the weather’s not too wet – and nobody notices if the temperature drops to just above zero when they’re this well-fuelled – the revelry extends through the night, culminating with a picnic breakfast washed down with more sparkling wine. The Kaivopuisto Park overlooking the Baltic shoreline is the most popular venue to greet the official launch of the spring and summer seasons.
The Vappu lunch is another ritual, and restaurants in the centre of town charge silly prices for special menus while their tables are at a premium. Coloured serpentine and empty bottles litter the parks and streets, and the kids are distracted from their parents’ antics with doses of something called sima – a lightly fermented lemonade. In the process of fermentation sima resembles nothing as much as dishwater – a similarity that has got me into trouble in the past; who wouldn’t throw a container of dishwater down the sink? The eating of doughnuts and a sweet deep fried confection, resembling thick strands of crispy noodles, called tippaleipä is also traditional.
May Day is a traditional pagan celebration by origin, of course, with a festival of flowers dating back to Roman times and Walpurgis Night having Germanic roots. More recently it has been associated with workers’ and trade union culture, and a workers’ parade is also part of Helsinki’s celebrations, culminating in the Senate Square with speeches and fraternal greetings reflecting a strong Finnish socialist tradition. Sadly, this aspect of the Vappu routine has become less central to the event, however.
The transition of the seasons in the North is truly something to celebrate, although this year the spring has come a good month earlier than usual and the rigours of winter were – praise be – similarly less testing. If you happen to be in Helsinki or another Finnish town or city for this slightly surreal and, for Finland, startlingly effusive festival, don’t bother trying to fight it. Either give in and go with the flow – or hide.
Hauskaa Vappua kaikille!