Hela The Finnish May Day Festival

Before the spreading of Christianity people in ancient Finland celebrated a festival called Hela. Hela was celebrated on May first and the celebration included singing, dancing, eating well and drinking beer and mead. ​

Hela was the beginning of the summer and festival to celebrate the earth´s fertility. There were many different kinds of superstitions and beliefs connected to Hela. One of the most important Hela symbols was helavalkeat, Hela bonfires. These fires were lit to keep the evil spirits away and to protect the cattle from predators.

Another symbol for Hela was bells. Children wrapped little bells to their feet and hands. It was believed that the jingling sounds made the cows produce more milk and protected them. Origins of the word Hela are in Swedish word helg which means holy.

Hela meant the beginning of the farmer´s year and it was celebrated in order to ask the gods and the spirits to give a good crop for the people. Cattle were driven to the fields through bonfires in order to prevent diseases. Another popular custom was to go to the sauna and perform love spells. Young people also danced by the fire.

When Christianity arrived in Finland in the early Middle Ages Hela was turned into a Christian holiday called Valpuri, named after St. Walpurg. St Walpurg was an English saint who lived in Devon. If her name sounds German that is because Walpurg originated from an upper-class German family.

In Germany Walpurgis Nacht is equivalent to Hela and so is Beltane, the Mayday festival of the ancient druids.
When Valpuri got more Christian elements the pagan beliefs connected to Hela became more suspicious. Transition night between April and May was known as Valpurinyö (Walpurg´s Night) Taikayö (the magic night) and Noitayö (witches night). It was believed that during this night witches and evil spirits were at the height of their powers. People were afraid that these spirits would steal children and would curse the cattle. People protected themselves from the evil spirits by hanging bones and alder branches in front of their homes.

In modern-day Finland Mayday celebration is known as Vappu and it is the office workers and students festival. Vappu arrived in Finland from Sweden in the 19th century. It originated from the Day of Flora (Day of the flower) on May 13th which was a very common day for different workers guilds and student groups to have meetings. At the end of the 19th-century, the date was changed to the first of May. During this time period, workers rights became an international issue and still today May the first is international workers day. Vappu became an official holiday in Finland in 1944 and since 1979 it has been an official flag day.

Vappu is a very colourful festival. It includes carnivals, balloons, confetti and in many places, masquerades are held for children. There are lots of open street markets and people eat doughnuts and funnel cakes and drink mead, sodas, soft drinks and, champagne. Since Vappu is a students festival you may see lots of people wearing their graduation hats around the cities.

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