photo by Britt-Marie Sohlström, April 30, 2011 in Böle, Jamtland, Sweden
We are coming to the close of another long weekend. The last one was for Easter and this time it’s Valborgsmässoafton on April 30th. It’s a song, speech, and bonfire-filled ringing in of spring named for Saint Walburga. And it flows right into the official red day (a red day is a national holiday) of Första maj (May 1st), the international worker’s day, which means closed stores and political speeches and demonstrations. So the way it falls on the calendar this year, many people have Monday and Tuesday off from work making for a lovely 4 day weekend. Saint Walburga was an English princess who served the Catholic church as a nun and abbess in Germany until her natural death on February 25th c. 777. Her feast days include February 25th when she died as well as May 1st when she was canonized. Although Valborgsmässoafton (VAHL-bohrgs-MEHS-soh-AFF-tuhn) is associated with her name, there doesn’t seem to be much religious connection beyond that. Whether it’s cold (nearly always) and rainy, or mild and sunny this is the moment that things change in Sweden. At least in southern Sweden. People tend to bust out the garden furniture and start to grill no matter what the temperature. This is also the day that signals the go-ahead for lighter, more summer-like clothing despite the fact it’s still pretty chilly. Bonfires are a common part of Valborg celebrations. Historically the fires were intended to scare off predators and evil spirits before the livestock were let out to pasture on May 1st after a long winter. In German tradition April 30th is also known as the eve when witches gather and bonfires were lit to hold them at bay. Many Swedish traditions are derived from Germany so witches are another possible reason for the bonfires. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the custom of the fires spread throughout the country.
screenshot from Valborgskören 2007, Umeå – Vintern Rasat Ut CLICK HERE TO SEE THE VIDEO
Valborg is particularly celebrated by university students with a traditional herring breakfast accompanied by snaps. Weather permitting, everyone takes to the parks for picnics, dancing and choral singing. Another part of the student tradition is to wear your graduation cap from high school and for everyone to put them on at a synchronized, precise moment. In the evening there are bonfires in communities all over Sweden and people bundle up to listen to a speech about welcoming spring followed by music, singing, and a bonfire. Standing next to a giant fire is generally a very good idea at this notoriously chilly celebration. Singing seems to be a common thread in Swedish celebrations and Valborgsmässoafton is no exception. One of the most well-known and loved songs for this holiday is Längten till Landet, more commonly known as Vintern Rasat Ut. The original lyrics are from a book called Jägarens Vila published in 1838 by author Herman Sätherberg and were set to music by Otto Lindblad in 1839. Although there are six verses the first two are most familiar to people and are traditionally sung by a men’s choir (click this link to hear the men’s choir version). An English translation of the first two verses is below.
Vintern rasat ut bland våra fjällar,
Winter stormed out among our mountains,
drivans blommor smälta ned och dö.
snow drifts melt down and die.
Himlen ler i vårens ljusa kvällar,
The sky smiles in spring’s bright evenings
solen kysser liv i skog och sjö.
The sun kisses life into the forest and lake.
Snart är sommarn här i purpurvågor,
Soon summer is here in purple waves,
ligga ängarne i dagens lågor,
lie meadows in daylit flames (strong sunlight on a spring day),
och i lunden dansa källorne.
and in the grove dance källorne (the light streams and dances).
Ja, jag kommer! Hälsen, glada vindar,
Yes, I’m coming! Greetings, cheerful winds,
ut till landet, ut till fåglarne,
out to the country, out to the birds,
att jag älskar dem, till björk och lindar,
that I love, to birch and linden trees,
sjö och berg, jag vill dem återse,
lake and mountain, I want them see again,
se dem än som i min barndoms stunder
see them like in my childhood memories
följa bäckens dans till klarnad sjö,
follow the dancing creek to the clear lake,
trastens sång i furuskogens lunder,
the thrush’s song in the pine forest groves,
vattenfågelns lek kring fjärd och ö.
waterfowl play around the bay and island.
Since our kids are pretty little, I have only participated in the bonfire aspect of Valborg once. I remember it was cold and crowded, but charming. And now that I’ve lived in Sweden for four years I have really come to appreciate the excitement about spring. It’s merited. So as I climb into bed tonight I’ll be humming Vintern Rasat Ut (as I have for days) and waking up with renewed excitement over spring in Sweden.