30 April, 2019

Valborg – a Swedish tradition steeped in dark history

For a non religious country, it may seem surprising that Sweden celebrates many Christian and Pagan holidays. Valborg, also known as Walpurgis night literally means witch night. Traditionally, whole towns would gather around huge bonfires and try to scare off evil spirits and witches.

Large bonfires like this are lit in many towns and cities across Sweden on Valborg night.

Where did Valborg come from?

Originally Germanic, the tradition is celebrated across many Eastern European countries. Terrified of witches, Pagans particularly feared witch sabbaths. They would gather and do their best to ward off the evil spirits by singing songs and dancing around a bonfire; all on the eve that the witches were due to gather. Witch mania was spreading around Europe, and Sweden was not exempt.

Sweden has quite a dark history of witch hunts and trials. In the 16th and 17th centuries priests tortured children until they testified that their mothers or sisters were actually witches. The Torsåker witch trials saw 71 people beheaded in one day, 65 of which were women, killing a fifth of the regions women in just one day.

Spooky – Starry skies from Västerbotten

On a lighter note

Over many years, the hysteria around witch craft died down. The tradition of Valborg took on new meaning. The fires became less about warding off dark spirits, and more about protecting farm animals from predators. Farmers would gather their sheep and cattle by the fire, lit to scare off wolves and foxes. The ceremony became a way to hope and pray for a successful harvest.

Nowadays, of course, witch hunts are not at the forefront of anyone’s mind. The Swedish calendar is full of traditions which have religious origins. However, the majority of these dates are celebrated without any religious ceremony.

Why wouldn’t you want to be outside when it looks like this?

Valborg now

There seems to be a bit of a theme with the traditions that Sweden have adopted. Valborg, celebrated on the 30th April, also signals a change in the seasons. Finally the snow has melted (mostly) and buds are appearing on the trees. At the end of a long, dark and cold winter, I can completely understand why this tradition is so popular. The long, sunny days excite hope about the Summer, which now feels so close.

There’s nothing the Swedes love more than being out in nature, and this tradition has now become a celebration of that. And so, Valborg is now less about warding off witches and more about celebrating the spring with a big party and a nice toasty bonfire. The parties are public events and vary across the country. In some cities, like Uppsala, champagne is a big part of the day.

So, if like me, you haven’t had the chance to celebrate Valburg in Sweden, then check out what your town has planned. Celebrate the warm Spring weather, outside with a drink and some good company.

Be sure to check your kommune’s website or facebook page to find celebrations near you.

Charlotte Garbutt
I am a foodie and feminist with a strong sense of adventure. I moved, with my husband and little black dog, to Skellefteå, Sweden from England in August 2018. I have since been eager to explore and learn more of the Swedish culture and language.

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