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May Day

May Day 2018 and 2019

May Day is a big celebration in Finland, and a holiday that has multiple “intertwined” roots, some pagan, some Christian, some secular.

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Thus, even though three-quarters of Finland’s 5.5 million people are Evangelical Lutherans, they mostly celebrate May Day right alongside the other quarter or so who claim no religious affiliation.

In the ancient past, the Finns celebrated the arrival of spring around this time of year. During its time as a Catholic country, Finland celebrated the feast day of Saint Walburga on May 1st, in attempt to supplant the old pagan rites. In modern times, May 1st became International Workers’ Day, or “Labour Day,” and this has also had its impact on the May Day celebrations in Finland.

However, Finnish May Day has evolved into a kind of national carnival that takes place in cities all over the country. People don colourful, playful costumes, make lots of noise, and some consume large quantities of “Nordic spirits.”

In the old pagan days, people would light large bonfires and dance around them, while making plenty of noise to scare off the witches and goblins. Today, Finns are much more likely to go on a May Day picnic instead. The winter snow is just barely gone or still barely lingering this time of year. It is a wonderful time to walk outdoors and enjoy the beginning of a Finnish spring.

Additionally, students from the University of Helsinki gather every “Havis Amanda,” Finnish for “First of May,” in Helsinki’s Market Square. They don white caps and surround the Havis Amanda statue, which looks like a mermaid and doubles as a fountain.

The students will also sometimes do practical jokes, so watch out! But you can safely buy the May Day Magazine joke collection they’ll be selling. Later, the students will gather in a park in downtown Helsinki for a picnic, and many tourists attend as well. There will be speeches, singing, and a brass band.

Should you be in Finland for May Day and May Day Eve, here are some activities to take part in:

  • Watch the celebration in Helsinki. The streets will be lined with people wearing costumes, masks, wigs, and unusual hats. They will be “dressed to scare,” but the crowds will be happily blowing on horns and other noisemakers, not given any sign of being remotely frightened.
  • Enjoy a hearty May Day meal in a local restaurant or in the home of a host. Look for dishes like smoked reindeer meat, smoked salmon, pickled herring, smoked herring, herring salad, boiled potatoes, onions, and eggs, dill dip, iced May Day fritters, jelly doughnuts, goat cheese, coffee, mixed punches, and if you indulge, champagne, wine, or Finnish mead.
  • Tour the spring time Finnish countryside in any of Finland’s 37 national parks. There are abundant forests, marshlands, lakes, and rolling hills. And you may wish to visit the snowy Arctic zone up in Lapland. Hiking, fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing, skiing, golfing, and kayaking are all very popular.

Finland comes alive on May Day, and anyone touring Finland this time of year will find numerous special events to accompany the year-round attractions.