Sweden celebrates Valborg, it’s own version of bonfire night on the last day of April. This is a Spring festival, unlike bonfire nights and fire festivals around the world, which generally take place in late Autumn.
Valborg- the name originating from Saint Walpurga, an abbess at a monastery during the 700s and traditions introduced from German in the middle ages- is about bonfires, singing spring themed songs, get-togethers and partying for students.
In these northern climes, the traditional celebrations of the coming of spring at Carnival before Lent are way too early. It is only after the weather of foolish of April gone that Spring starts to settle in more. Around the 1st of May is when farm animals are turned out to pasture. (Something that is a spectacle itself!)
One belief is that bonfires were lit to scare off predators when farm animals were let out to graze.
Among farmers and peasants, Valborg was the day of the annual village meeting when they chose a new alderman.
Over the centuries Valborg has morphed into a fun and quirky Swedish tradition. And the place to be, really, is one of the 2 big university towns: Uppsala or Lund. Here Valborg takes on a whole different level!
Valborg in Uppsala
So big are the Valborg celebrations in Uppsala that the local authority, together with the Student Nations (country level student unions), update a special website each year with a whole calendar of events spanning 3-4 days. https://valborgiuppsala.se
On Carolina Library balcony there is a large count down display from a month before, counting down to the big choral event and Valborg Speech taking place there at 3 pm on the 30th of April.
The festivities for students, however, often start days before.
On the 30th of April, the day starts with a champagne breakfast. Enjoy this in one of the Student Nation halls or in some of Uppsala’s Cafes.
People then flock to the riverside for 10 am. Crowds line the Fyrisån to watch as student clubs and businesses float down the river braving the 2 weirs – one above Dombron (Cathedral Bridge) and the other under Islandsbron (Island Bridge) -and the icy waters of the river. These teams spend weeks perfecting their designs. And it really is quite a laugh to watch them.
The river floats tradition started off in the 1970s with engineering students cobbling together floats. Today, sadly, the inventiveness has been taken out of the process, as all teams build on a polystyrene base with carved and painted polystyrene.
The creativity, however, shines with political statements, humour plentiful in the designs.
This is a fabulously fun part of Valborg celebrations so quintessentially Uppsalan.
This incredibly fun event, however, left us feeling slightly upset: Although the bases are, apparently reused year after year and broken off chunks of polystyrene collected by a temporary artificial barrier, there are still plenty of small polystyrene balls that enter the environment as the flats get bashed in the process.
I just wish Uppsala would honour its status as the WWF climate city of 2018 by allowing the float makers to recycle materials and be creative their choice of materials used for the floats. It feels too ironic seeing a float drawing attention climate change contributing to plastic pollution in the waterways!
Picnic in the Park
Uppsala has some beautiful parks, our favourites being the Stadsparken, City Park, right by the river and the Carolina Park, with the Pelle Svanslös playground at the top of the hill behind the Carolina Library. When the weather is nice, these are lovely places to sit and enjoy a picnic, while the kids run around and play.
Being up in Carolina Park puts you in perfect place for the up coming events too.
At Valborg there is a choir singing in the park from 2pm.
Pack a picnic and enjoy the atmosphere!
During the Valborg festivities, there are concerts and balls happening at the Student Unions. These are, however, mostly reserved for students and alumni.
The speech, the caps and the choral greeting
Valborg is the day for the donning of the student caps, which marks the final period of high-school studies but also the academic year for university students.
By 3 pm people gather up the road leading up from the city centre and up the Castle hill, in front of Carolina Library for the big event:
There is a short speech given from the balcony of the Library.
This is greeted by graduating and previously graduated students waving their student caps.
The student nations’ representatives line the steps of the library with flag and the choir 4-5 songs as a greeting to Spring. All this is amplified through large speakers lining the main street towards the city centre.
The songs are followed by the waving of caps again and the crowd disperses.
Bigger and smaller bonfires take place across Uppsala. (Though in some years there might be fewer than usual due to drought and severe fire danger.) However, the place to be for this occasion is Gamla Uppsala (Old Uppsala) at the royal burial mounds. The backdrop of this old burial site is the perfect setting for what is probably the oldest of the Valborg traditions- the bonfire.
Gathered here is also a small choir, who sing a couple of songs a the procession of the scouts (with children as young as 6 years old) approach the pyre with a lit torches. The kids encircle the huge heap and light up the pile of combustible materials. Slowly the flames go higher and higher. People stand around and watch, as we instinctively are mesmerised by the flames.
Again a picnic run, some hot chocolate and tea with hotdogs is a good idea. (These are also available to purchase from the tent of the local heritage society, who organise the bonfire and put on the fireworks display.)
When the fire burns the highest almost, radiating its heat to a good 50-75m, fireworks are lit.
Gamla Uppsala has a decent bus connection to Uppsala, which is just 6 km away. Getting here and back into town by bike or bus is easy. Parking can be a bit more tricky, though not impossible.
The Ball at the Castle
Like in Oxford and Cambridge, Valborg also has May Day eve Ball. The most prominent is hosted in Uppsala Castle. So if you fancy donning full formal attire – ball gown and tuxedo- in a beautiful Medieval castle, then you can swap out the bonfire with a very posh dinner and a ball.
So what do you think of Valborg, this peculiar Swedish tradition?
If you are considering a day out in Uppsala, timing it for Valborg is a great way to get the real youthful, student vibe of the city.
Getting to Uppsala:
Uppsala is closer to Stockholm’s main airport, Arlanda, than Stockholm itself- just 40km- and serviced by an excellent, affordable, half-hourly bus service from the airport, which gets you here in 45 mins.
There are a couple of trains each hour between Uppsala and Stockholm, with the fast train taking as little as 30 minutes and the commuter train (cheaper) taking an hour.
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