In Helsinki, everyone waits for May Day to arrive.
Stemming from the traditions of Walpurgis Night, April 30, the entire city comes out in a festival celebration on the streets.
May 1st also marks Socialist Labor Day. Think of it more like how we celebrate July 4th.
Since Finland’s Independence day is in the dead of winter, there are few holidays to celebrate in the nicer weather. It is pretty much just Vappu and Midsummer.
On top of this, students of the city have deeply rooted traditions in both Walpurgis Night and the following day. It just so happens that their semester exams end in the week before Vappu. On the evening of April 30, the students would traditionally put a graduate’s cap on the famous sculpture, Havis Amanda, in the city center. Then continue with frivolity and sparkling wine, which would drag through to the following day with picnics in the main parks of the city.
As you can see in the pictures, most people of all ages wear their white caps. These are awarded to high school graduates, as a symbol of their continuation into University studies. This is because, traditionally, the matriculation exam from high school was the entrance exam into university, which is why the caps carry the symbol of the University of Helsinki on them. Aside from the obvious wear and tear that these caps get over the years of parties, they are largely the same. Engineering students wear a ridiculously long tassel off of theirs (that I noticed then pinning up to their clothing to help support it. The liners of the caps can vary depending on study area and/or region. Apparently, the size of the pit on the front indicates whether the wearer is Swedish or Finnish speaking, a tradition dating back to the language strife in Finland in the late 19th century.
|A Finnish Vappu cap, courtesy of wikipedia
It was very cool seeing gentlemen in their late 70s still donning their caps with pride, now yellowed over the years. Even more impressive was their ability to keep up with the young adults during the parties! All of Finland really does come out for this event!
Now, this is all the traditional stuff. Walpurgis night + Labor Day + City Wide University Celebration.
It is basically a recipe for thousands of drunk Finns in funny white hats with comically large tassels.
And it all happens something like this:
1.) Gather at the Havis Amanda statue with at least on bottle of champagne per person.
Wait for the students (in their party overalls) to be crane-lifted over the statue to first wash her, and then later accept a hat that has been flown in on a drone.
2.) At the end of the countdown, pop your champagne (and confetti cannon if you have one -which I did, naturally). Commence your consumption.
3.) Wander around the city and marvel at the ridiculous amount of white caps, as well has the impressive level of drunk that has been achieved by so many people.
4.) Locate sustenance and feed.
5.) Continue wandering around until a suitable amount of weird things have happened.
Suggestions: Ride a Ferris wheel. Take a huge bouquet of balloons and pawn them off on drunk people in the park who want to suck the helium. Seize the opportunity to chat with some Finns while their inhibitions are down.
Hopefully you are still alive, because you have to keep going the next day.
We started out by gathering for breakfast burritos and mimosas (obviously, though it was more of a Bloody Mary morning) after which we walked to Kaivopuisto, one of the main parks in Helsinki and where the biggest group of “picnic”-ers were settled.
I -like you- kept hearing the word “picnic” which lead me to imagine an actual picnic. I just assumed the picnic-ers would be a bit more tipsy than usual. I had heard that “some people” get really into it and bring portable stoves and tents.
Ok, so like a tailgate in a park.
However, after walking through a sea of people (mostly in white caps-we really stood out without them) we came to the park and found nothing that resembled a picnic or a tailgate. It was more like a county fair or concert series, where everyone sat on blankets on top of each other.
I saw portable saunas, stands of licorice flavors, a full tent of 40+ year olds passed out on each other, a full pig on a spit, tents with dancing collegiate students, and a man dressed up like a king, walking around with blow up dolls, which were accessorized with outfits and back packs (he danced with each in turn).
It was somewhere between mayhem and awesome, but either way, I had a hard time wrapping my head around it.
We found a spot on the edge of some high rocks in the park looking over the Baltic, where we continued to watch the madness swirl around us foreigners without our white caps. When the champagne was gone and the Baltic wind had gotten the best of us, Jimmy and I peeled off towards home, where grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup were waiting.
And the next day we woke up and realized that it was only Saturday and we were all sorts of partied out.