Tonight is Valborgsmässoafton, or simply, Valborg. Although it might not constitute the coldest night of the year, many of us will experience it this way. This event is generally perceived as the onset of summer, and encouraged by the warm sun of the daylight hours, most celebrators are unprepared for the chillier evening and dress far too optimistically.
If you are curious on the local customs, and not discouraged by the temperature, this is a great opportunity to take part in the Swedish tradition. On the website of your kommun, there will be information where you can find your nearest bonfire, and the timetable for the evening. Highlights are likely to include a torchlight procession, lighting the bonfire and choir singing. Popcorn, hot dogs and candyfloss will be on the menu. Many people will add beer, or stronger options, to that.
Many Swedes, although confident this is a truly Swedish event, would be unsure of the origin of Valborg if questioned. They would be surprised, possibly even disappointed, to learn that like many other traditions, it originates from Germany, and is celebrated in a handful of countries in the northern and eastern parts of Europe, with regional variations. There are also similarities to the Gaelic event of Beltane.
The meaning for many, I believe, is the true onset of summer. Summer is a big deal in Sweden, as you easily discover if you spend a whole year in the country. With such great differences between summer and winter, both in terms of daylight hours and temperatures, Swedes adapt completely different lifestyles for the different seasons. Whereas winter is associated with work, summer is all about enjoying oneself. This stark contrast could appear shocking to an outside, and I have heard many expats complaining about how the industrious, law-abiding Swedes turn into a completely different species during the warm months. For students, traditionally, Valborg means the end of exams, and the beginning of the party season. The white hats school-leavers wear in June are normally worn for the first time at this evening following a ritual at the school.
The dark side of Valborg is the unfortunate fate of hedgehogs, as often reported in the news as the event is coming up. These hibernating animals often spend the winter in piles of branches, twigs and leaves, and if you have prepared for a big bonfire for a while, it is not unlikely that this is also the home of an innocent hedgehog.
If you wish to partake in the local celebrations, you will be more than welcome. This is a public event, at most places free of charge. At the venue, you will notice something rather unusual for Swedish parties, that is, a good healthy mix of generations. There will be families with young children, couples of all ages, groups of teenagers, people in groups as well as individuals. Some come to listen to the choir and watch the lighting of the fire, others stay many hours. Non-swedes have reported a bit surprise at the lack of ‘activity’, not finding enough pleasure in just watching the fire. This disinterest may, in my opinion, be partly cured if your clothing is compatible with the temperature. Do dress warm, make sure you bring an umbrella, have a filling dinner before you leave the house.