Monday, April 30, 2018

April 30


Walpurgisnacht: the eve of May


Strapping German lads start the bonfire in Heidelberg. You're welcome.

April 30 is the night when witches ride their broomsticks through the sky, and the natural world is forced to confront the supernatural powers. Like Halloween, "Walpurgis Night" has its roots in ancient pagan customs, superstitions and festivals. At this time of year, the Vikings participated in a ritual that they hoped would hasten the arrival of spring weather and ensure fertility for their livestock and crops. They would light huge bonfires in hopes of scaring away evil spirits. 

Over time, this Viking tradition merged with a German celebration of the canonization of a female saint, Walpurgis, dating back to May 1, 779. She was a nun who spoke out against witchcraft and sorcery. The date of Walpurgisnacht, April 30, is exactly six months before (or after) Halloween, so if you find yourself in a European country with Germanic traditions, you get double the fun. Walpurgisnacht is the last chance for witches and their nefarious cohorts to stir up trouble before spring reawakens the land. Depending upon your exact location, this can include burning scarecrows, massive consumption of alcohol, dressing up as witches and making lots of noise to scare off witches -- celebrants ring bells, bang drums, crack whips and beat wooden planks onto the ground. As technology advanced, they would shoot firearms into the air. So guns and alcohol, what could possibly go wrong?
In Bavaria, youths roam neighborhoods pulling mischievous pranks, such as wrapping cars in toilet paper and slathering doorknobs with toothpaste. Elsewhere in Germany young girls dress up as witches and carry sticks. 

The whole affair achieved a high culture status when German composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote a cantata (1843) based on Goethe's poem, "The First Walpurgis Night." The story is about how a prank allows for a local tradition to take place despite opposition from an intolerant new Christian regime. The Druids and local heathen want to celebrate May Day, but this is now forbidden. A Druid watchman suggests a masquerade of the Devil, spirits, and demons to frighten the occupying Christians. The Christians are scared away, and the Druids and heathen are left to celebrate Spring and the Sun. 

A recap with a heavy German accent:

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