End of April, start of May: it’s another of the old stories manifesting again tonight –– the stories we tell each other year after year, and which never grow tired, for the wheel of the year turns and each spoke is new and yet is the old familiar, too. And so here is the old story for tonight: it is Walpurgis Night, the Eve of May. With it, we spring into summer.
The night is named for St. Walpurga, a saint who, in medieval times, had not one but two feast days each year: February 25, which is the day she left this earthly life, and the First of May, which which was the date of her canonization in the 9th century. Her May feast day has actually not been celebrated in the Church for centuries now; nonetheless, St. Walpurga is forever tied to the transition from spring to summer, and we are the richer for it, for still we get to wish each other a Happy Walpurgis Night as we welcome May, and why deprive ourselves of saying words filled with such wonder? This night is particularly loved in Sweden, Finland, and Bavaria. In Sweden, this is a night for bonfires, for gravlax and sparkling wine outdoors under the stars. In many places, historically, this was a night, especially for the young and hearty, to stay out til dawn as winter becomes but a memory and as we enter into the gentler time of year.
In the Celtic tradition, it is Beltane. It is the cross quarter day that helps us spring to summer here in the Northern Hemisphere. In the wheel of the year, Beltane is the direct opposite spoke of the cross quarter day that comes as we fall into winter, which is Samhain, or Halloween. The fall into winter brings descent, life burrowing down beneath the earth, while the spring into summer brings ascent, life springing forth from the earth. It is an aspect of the everlasting mysteries of the planet and its place in the universe: we know these things so well, for we witness them each year with the planet’s revolution around the sun, and yet how these things have all come to pass still has the power to leave us breathless. (Again, the old stories.) The very names given to these days are shrouded in mystery, too, for their pronunciations are, for most of us, not of our tongue, and what seems apparent is not: Beltane is pronounced bowl-tan-a; Samhain is pronounced sah-win. Like the names of angels in ancient tongues, to speak the names connects us to a long forgotten past whose embers smolder still in the bonfires we light, in the fire bowls in our yards, or even in the candle you illuminate in your home. We certainly don’t need candles, do we? And yet we light them, especially on nights like this, nights that mark a shift.
Here’s another part of the old story I’ve offered you in the past: It was a few years ago on Walpurgis Night that Convivio Book of Days reader (and fellow letterpress printer) Leonard Seastone gave us a pointer in the blog comments about a good song for this night, and I always remember this kindness. It is a traditional Swedish song called “Maj vare välkommen” (May Be Welcome), and that song will be part of our quiet celebration tonight, too, even if it’s just playing in my head. Leonard signed off on that Walpurgis Night using his proper Swedish name –– Lennart Einar Sjösten –– so he seems to me a good authority on these matters. I hope he’ll be celebrating tonight as Seth and I will be, and I hope you will, too, in some way, grand or small.
I’ll be back tomorrow with your Convivio Book of Days calendar for May. For tonight, though, we wish you a good and warm Walpurgis Night. Welcome May!
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Image: “Walpurgia Night Fest on Heiligenberg in Heidelberg (Germany)” by Przemyslaw Grudnik. Photograph, 30 April 2006. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.