Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/12 posted by hidden europe on

Well, we survived Walpurgis Night. Did you? Or were you abducted by ghouls or goblins? Did you sell your soul? Across much of Europe, May is ushered in by a night of bonfires and revelry. "All a matter of keeping the witches at bay," says our friend Milena who lives in a small village in Bohemia. Across the Czech Republic, the vigil of May Day is the cue for pálení carodejnic (the witch burning). There are bonfires and broomsticks aplenty and folk stay up till dawn. The shift from April to May is a liminal moment in the calendrical affairs of the European continent - one of those edgy, dangerous temporal boundaries that deserve to be taken seriously.

article summary —

Well, we survived Walpurgis Night. Did you? Or were you abducted by ghouls or goblins? Did you sell your soul?

Across much of Europe, May is ushered in by a night of bonfires and revelry. "All a matter of keeping the witches at bay," says our friend Milena who lives in a small village in Bohemia. Across the Czech Republic, the vigil of May Day is the cue for pálení carodejnic (the witch burning). There are bonfires and broomsticks aplenty and folk stay up till dawn.

The shift from April to May is a liminal moment in the calendrical affairs of the European continent - one of those edgy, dangerous temporal boundaries that deserve to be taken seriously. "The first day of May is the witches' Sabbath," says Milena, "so from sunset on the preceding eve we must defend our communities against the witches."

Similar ideas about the dangers that attend the start of May crop up in various guises across Europe. Goethe gave this bewitching folk movement a big boost and better brand identity when he set a key scene in Faust atop the Brocken, an undistinguished hilltop in the Harz Mountains (big, forested whalebacks of hills that relieve the monotony of the North European Plain west of Berlin). Faust made his hilltop pact with the devil on the last night of April.

All this is a bit tough on Saint Walpurga who has been drawn into the whole bewitching affair by accident. Saint Walpurga inadvertently gave her name to May Day as she was canonised on that day. Walpurga has long since disappeared from the ecclesiastical calendar but deserves to be remembered (along with clotted cream) as one of the finest exports of south-west England. By all accounts, she made a decent job of spreading Christianity through the hills of Franconia and made her mark as an early travel writer, penning narratives of her brother's journeys through Palestine. Ah, those were the days! Men went off by sea and their sisters stayed at home and wrote about it.

The fact of Saint Walpurga's canonisation being commemorated on 1 May (and the preceding night thus being known as Walpurgis Night) has led to the widespread belief across central Europe that Walpurga was a witch of some kind – hardly the historical legacy that the virtuous missionary would have chosen for herself.

While Milena and her family in Bohemia welcome the merry month of May by singing songs around the village bonfire, Berliners traditionally throw stones and fireworks at the local police. This is not a course of behaviour suggested by Goethe (Faust, even in his darkest moments, was always very civil), and surely not one of which Saint Walpurga would have approved. But it has developed into a modern tradition that perpetuates Berlin's affection for anarchy in all its forms.

With so many engaging diversions in many European countries last night (and we've not even mentioned football in Manchester), it is no surprise that not a lot of work is being done today. Folk sleep late or have a hangover (or both).

May Day is a public holiday across much of Europe. In Estonia they call it Kevadpüha (Spring Day). Russia made a long weekend of it this year, with both yesterday and today designated as public holidays. Most European countries use May Day as a prompt to reflect on the rights and liberties of wage slaves and other workers. Only in Britain, always so anxious to buck the trend and demonstrate its difference from the rest of Europe, do the rhythms of everyday life proceed as usual. Morning madrigals at Magdalen in Oxford are a token deference to fading tradition. Even in her native Devon, the anniversary of the canonisation of Saint Walpurga goes largely unremarked.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.