Vappu, also known as May Day, is a major spring festival celebrated in Finland on May 1st each year. It is a time of rejoicing and merrymaking and is one of the biggest holidays.
Vappu is celebrated throughout Finland with various traditions such as picnicking, drinking, and wearing white caps and student overalls. The festivities typically begin on the evening of April 30th and continue through May 1st. In Helsinki, the city center is closed to traffic and filled with music, food, and entertainment. (Some roads between Kauppatori and Esplanaadi)
History behind Vappu
The origins of Vappu can be traced back to ancient pagan rituals that celebrated the arrival of spring. These rituals were eventually Christianized and incorporated into the church calendar as the Feast of St. Walburgis, who was a Christian saint. The word Valpuri was more familiar in the Finnish mouths, and this turned into Vappu.
In Europe, the start of Spring was celebrated. As part of the celebrations, large bonfires were lit. Also, in Ireland and Scotland, the kelt Beltane party was celebrated. Bonfires were believed to promote the fertility of livestock.
These same types of traditions were celebrated in Finland. Bonfires were common in history here as well, but not nowadays anymore. Candles and bonfires were believed to drive away evil spirits. At the party, mead was drunk, and dancing was involved in the festivities. Cattle were let out to pasture for the first time. The tradition of bonfires of the Germanic peoples continues in today's Sweden, mainly in Southcentral Sweden. In Finland, burning May Day bonfires is rare today and concentrated in Swedish-speaking areas. (source)
Over time, the celebration became more secular and was associated with the arrival of spring and the beginning of summer. It was also a time for workers to demand better working conditions and more rights. The first of May became an important day for labor unions and socialist political parties.
What about the Student cap tradition?
From 1848, the students' celebration was timed to Flower Day, or Flora Day (May 13). In the 1920s, Finnish universities moved the celebration to the first day of May. May Day became a holiday for students because students used to have two caps: a dark winter cap and a white summer cap. The winter cap was changed to a summer cap on a certain day, and the spring festival was celebrated. The change of clothes, originally scheduled for Flora's day, was moved to May Day.
Vappu became a workers' holiday because the US unions demanded an eight-hour workday.1.5. was traditionally the date when employment contracts were renewed in the United States. After the general strike 1886, the demands were agreed to. May Day was chosen as the International Workers' Demonstration Day at the Paris Congress in 1889. Labor organizations started celebrating May Day regularly in Finland in 1902.
Vappu is truly a mix of pagan rituals, Christianity, and workers' rights.
How do Finns celebrate Vappu?
- Student traditions: Vappu is an important time for students in Finland, who often organize special events and parties to mark the occasion. Some hold all-night parties that continue until the early hours of May 1st.
- Wearing a white cap and student overalls: One of the most recognizable symbols of Vappu in Finland is the white cap worn by many people during the celebrations. The caps are typically worn with student overalls, which are brightly colored overalls. The overalls are often adorned with patches and other decorations that reflect the wearer's interests and affiliations.
- Havis Amanda statue gets a cap. In Helsinki, the students make Havis Amanda (Manta) "go wild". Today, student unions in the capital region give the hat to Manta in alternating years. This happens at 18:00 at May Day eve, and you can watch it on television also. Year 2023 there was 30 000 people gathered at the square. Topelius gets the cap in Vaasa, Kivi in Nurmijärvi, and Minna Canth in Jyväskylä.
- Drinking: This party is another excuse for Finns to drink alcohol. It is not uncommon for you to find half of Helsinki drunk at May Day eve.
- Picnic: Many people gather in parks and other outdoor spaces to grill sausages, drink sparkling wine or sima (a Finnish mead), and socialize with friends and family. This is especially the tradition for the May day.
- May Day brunch: Another popular Vappu tradition is the May Day brunch, especially for those not celebration it outdoors. The brunch is often enjoyed with friends and family.
- Helium balls. You can see Helium ball vendors all round city at the time for Vappu. This is especially a must for kids to have a cartoon-shaped helium ball.
- Serpentine. This colorful band, called serpentiini in Finnish is a decoration product specially used at Vappu.
Vappu carnivals, also known as "Vappumarssit" in Finnish, are colorful and lively parades that take place in many cities and towns throughout Finland on May day. These parades are an important part of the Vappu celebrations and attract large crowds of spectators.
The Vappumarssit are typically organized by student organizations, labor unions, and other groups, and participants often wear colorful costumes and carry banners and signs that reflect their interests and causes. The parades are accompanied by lively music and dancing, and many participants hand out balloons and other small gifts to the spectators.
The parade typically includes hundreds of participants, including students, labor unions, and other organizations. For example year 2023 the trade union SAK has a traditional Vappukulkue, and it is organized at 11 o clock at Hakaniemi, from where they walk to Kansalaistori. There are then music performances and a speech by the prime minister.
In Tampere, there are Vappumarssit, usually at Laukontori and Hämeenpuisto. In Turku, people gather at the Turku Kauppatori. Read more of Turku Vappu traditions.
Vappu in Helsinki
Vappu celebrations start on the evening before the first of May. In the late afternoon, people gather in Helsinki. Especially to see the Havis Amanda statue get its cap.
The Havis Amanda statue is at Kauppatori in Helsinki. The five-meter-high statue depicts a mermaid who has decided to leave her home in the sea and step ashore. Havis Amanda is the embodiment of Helsinki, the "Daughter of the Baltic Sea". It is also called the Manta statue. It has been in Helsinki Kauppatori from the year 1908.
The Amanda statue has a pool with water surrounding it. People gather around the statue and swim in the pool at special events. For example, the national ice hockey team won gold in 1995 and 2011. In the year 2023, there was no water at the pool but foam instead.
It is, though, actually forbidden to swim in the pool or climb on top of it, since it is a piece of artwork. The city often puts fences around it during Vappu. The students who get to put the cap on the statue do it with a crane.
There is also a student choir singing.
On the first of May, people gather at the parks in Helsinki for a picnic. Especially at brunch time... If it does not rain. The most popular park for picnics in Helsinki is the Kaivopuisto and the region of Ullanlinnanmäki (kaivopuiston tähtitorni).
My Hotel recommendation is the *Lapland hotel Bulevardi. This is if you are looking for a nice Finnish experience and some Finnish Lapland tastes at the breakfast table. It has very cosy rooms and is not too close to the notice of the Vappu celebrations, but still just walking away. A very classy hotel right in the center and close to the Esplanade park is *Hotel St George. St George has a nice pool and sauna area and spa treatments -(links lead to booking.com page)
Sima is a traditional Finnish mead made and consumed, especially during the Vappu season. It is a sweet, sparkling beverage made from water, sugar, yeast, and citrus fruits, and it is typically served cold. See recipe for traditional Sima. There are many variations of Finnish Sima. The most popular one is flavored with lemon. Playing with different tastes like rhubarb, currant, grapefruit, strawberry, or watermelon is also fun.
Munkki is a type of Finnish doughnut that is commonly eaten during Vappu. It is a deep-fried doughnut that is coated in sugar and can be flavored with vanilla or cardamom. The dough is very similar to Finnish pulla dough. See recipe for a simple oven-baked munkki at Scandicuisine.
Tippaleipä, also known as May Day Funnel Cakes, is a type of fried pastry. The dough is piped through a funnel (or plastic bag) into hot oil and fried until golden brown. It is decorated with powdered sugar.
The brunch can consist of traditional things eaten at a Finnish breakfast table together with some sparkling wine. A nice thing to pack along for a picnic is also some Finnish potato salad with baguette and some cocktail meatballs or small sausages. A creamy potato salad with leek is also something nice to serve if organizing a barbecue. Asparagus is in the season in Finland at springtime, so a nice brunch item if hosting at home would be asparagus sandwich with poached eggs.
Something fancy to pack along for a picnic is also a traditional Salmon sandwich cake. Vegans might like a vegan option for sandwich cake or some nice sandwiches with carrot salmon on toast or with a vegan caviar mayo sauce. (this is also great for dipping chips)
Weather in May
Generally, the weather during Vappu in Finland is often quite mild and pleasant, with temperatures typically ranging from 5-15°C (41-59°F).
In southern and western Finland, the weather during Vappu is often sunny and mild, with occasional rain showers. It is not uncommon for people to spend time outdoors, enjoying picnics or outdoor activities, even though it might be a bit chilly.
In northern and eastern Finland, where the climate is colder, the weather during Vappu is more unpredictable. It is not uncommon for there to still be snow on the ground in some areas during Vappu, and temperatures can be very cold.
What to wear
It might be that the weather in Helsinki is only at 6-7 Celsius even though the temperatures in late April and May can rise up to 15 degrees Celsius. It is no weather for a summer party dress. You need a warm jacket, and an umbrella is a must to carry along in Finland.
Fun fact: Did you know that Vappu is also a female name in Finland. There are 6976 persons named Vappu. (source)
Vappu päivä, the day of Finnish work, has been a flag day since 1978. Vappu became a statutory holiday in 1944.
In Finland, a popular student song is the "Gaudeamus Igitur". It is an old drinking song in Latin, which has become the signature tune of the university community, especially the academic youth. This means rejoice.