May 1st is a day of celebration in many countries now – but it’s doubtful if many places go quite so crazy as happens at the Helsinki Vappu! The idea of a picnic in the park with some fine food and sparkling white wine might actually sound quite refined and tasteful – and so it would be if that’s all there was to it; but Vappu is so very much more than that.
Vappu is actually Finnish for Walpurgis Day and is traditionally one of Finland’s biggest party days of the year. What was formerly a mainly upper class affair has been, since the beginning of the twentieth century, usurped by Finland’s university students and turned into a very boisterous, and extremely alcoholic, succession of street parties.
It all begins on the last evening in April, when students don their traditional ‘caps’ and make their way in their thousands to Helsinki’s Market Square where they proceed, at six o’clock in the evening, to give a good clean to the naked statue, Havis Amanda, and place the traditional white cap jauntily on her head. She was 100 years old in 1908 but this art nouveau creation of Ville Vallgren has survived quite well considering the treatment she receives every Vappu. On the way to the Market Square, the students will probably have a drink or two of the traditional sima, which is a little like mead – very alcoholic, in other words. A doughnut or two to help soak it up and then they’re off to party for the rest of the night.
On May Day itself, everyone who is able to do so makes their way to either Kaivopuisto or Kaisaniemi Park (the Swedish speakers tend to congregate in the latter) for the traditional picnic. It is quite customary to see white tablecloths laid out on the grass with elaborate candelabras and cutlery and there might well be a few wandering violinists providing appropriate background music. Don’t be surprised, though, to see balloons, streamers, party poppers and general mayhem begin to break out – and the party will just continue from there.
As May 1st has a political significance as well, there will be traditional workers’ marches (no doubt with marchers complaining about ‘students who should be working’). Finland is always likely to be unconventional, though, and so it is, even in this matter. In order to be fair and balanced, all the political parties will be on the streets – even the church-goers joins in and have a march and make some speeches.
Vappu is celebrated in all of the towns and cities of Finland, but it is in Helsinki that the annual rituals can be seen at their most joyous. It is a gloriously anarchic atmosphere – and it must take some people days to recover.
If you’re brave enough to face Vappu, then you need to know that almost nowhere will be open on the day itself – and the ‘Alko’ shops stop selling quite early on the evening before. Also, although there is good late night public transport on May Day Eve, there is a very limited service on May Day itself.
By the way, if you should fancy a visit to the cinema whilst you’re in Helsinki, the authorities have come up with a wonderful idea for after the Vappu celebrations. If you collect 20 sparkling wine or champagne bottles (trust me, it won’t take you long), then you can take them to a collection point and exchange them for a free cinema ticket!
Helsinki might sound like a long way to go just for a party but, at the beginning of May, there is much to recommend it. Often described as a ‘pocket-sized metropolis’, this friendly, spacious and fascinating city – the world’s second-most northerly capital – is surrounded by wonderful scenery and yet has a fabulous reputation for its nightlife.
With plentiful accommodation to suit all budgets and with an excellent public transport system – though the taxis are costly – it gives visitors plenty to do and see at almost any time of the year. To be in Helsinki for Vappu, however, is to guarantee yourself one tremendous party – as long as you’ve got the head for mead and sparkling wine, of course!