What I love most about Finland is its serene nature and the sheer tranquility you feel when you look out over the alien marsh lands or the snow-capped tree tops. In those moments you may very feel like the only person on the planet. However, on one day each year Finns gather in the streets and come together in celebration: Vappu. On the first of May Finns celebrate Finnish Vappu, one of the biggest holidays next to Christmas and Easter. It’s especially popular among students and marks a highlight in the academic calendar for many.
History and Tradition
Vappu was born out of the catholic celebrations of Walpurgis Night and was celebrated by upper-class families already in the 1700s. They would go horseback riding and enjoy the freshly emerged greenery together with friends. Finnish Vappu was we know it today was established by secondary school graduates in the 1800s. It was then when students first started wearing white caps in honour of their accomplishments.
Today, many statues around Finland also receive their own white caps. This tradition started with “Havis Amanda” in Helsinki in 1932. Make sure to head over to the Market Square (Kauppatori) to witness her “coronation” at 18.00.
To cure their hangover from partying all night, people come together for a picnic on actual May Day. If you are in Helsinki, head over to Kaivopuisto and join young and old in their celebrations. It’s the perfect time to admire a sea of colours as students will be wearing their traditional overalls. The colour of the overall often indicates the student’s major and the patches make for a good conversation starter 😉
For your picnic make sure to grab some sima and tippaleipä from the supermarket. Sima is a mead made from honey and water. It’s relatively low in alcohol content, but you can find child-friendly versions in supermarkets too. Tippaleipä is a type of deep-fried funnel cake, dusted in powdered sugar and absolutely addictive! You can read more about it here.
Vappu in Turku
Although Helsinki naturally takes the cake, festivities in Turku are lively too. On the 30th of April you can join the student union and hundreds of students on the university grounds for some lighthearted fun. Usually students have a cup of sima (or two) and enjoy the sunshine (should there be any). Look out for the Educarium building (at Assistentinkatu 5). In its vicinity you’ll find plenty of students to chat up.
From there you’ll proceed to the Turku Art Museum (at Aurakatu 26). Around 17.30 you can enjoy some marching music before the main program begins at 18.00. By then the street leading up to the museum will be crowded with people young and old. After the traditional First of May speech they will all put on their white caps and welcome summer (or spring?) with a loud cheer. It then continues on to the banks of river Aura where, similar to her sister in Helsinki, the Lilja statue gets capped. Somewhere along the way Turku’s landmark Posankka also gets its very own over-sized hat.
On the actual first of May, everybody gathers for a picnic on Vartiovuori. So grab your blankets and snacks and climb the hill all the way to the top. There is also some entertainment in the form of live music.
Before you go – Practical Tips
The 1st of May is a full holiday and you should be aware that the country functions differently on this day. First and foremost all offices are closed which doesn’t necessarily concern you as a traveler but bear in mind also banks are closed. If you are facing problems with one of your cards, it will be tough to find help. Also, many shops are closed on this day, so don’t plan your next big shopping trip on Finnish Vappu. Supermarkets are open, but with exceptional hours.
However, one major issue you might have is that as a government-owned institution, all Alko shops are closed. So if you want to have anything stronger than regular sima on Vappu, you will have to plan ahead and buy your booze in good time 😉
Also note that if you’re passing through public transport might be impaired on the 30th of April due to the large crowds. Busses may start and stop in different places or be grounded all together in the hours between 17.00 and 19.00. Make sure to know your route before you leave. On May Day busses run less frequently, according to Sunday schedules.
Although Vappu also means the welcoming of summer, the weather will most likely not cooperate. Out of the last few May Days I’ve spent in Finland, all have been unaccommodating, with the exception of last year. As I’m writing this on the 30th of April, it is currently snowing. Be prepared for bad weather and if all else fails, make a reservation for one of the many cozy Vappu brunches offered in restaurants around town 🙂
Now, what do you think? Have you celebrated Finnish Vappu before? What are May Day traditions in your country? Share your thoughts and pictures with us! Let’s stay in touch!