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As Helsinki’s newest resident coming from Sydney, I want to experience the real May Day, one of the country’s most recognizable and celebrated public holidays that the Finns call “vappu.” I decide to brave the heavy rain and head to the Market Square – apparently along with the rest of the citizens of the capital. It dawns on me that nothing, (not even the rain) can dampen people’s spirits on vappu. The place is packed and buzzing with boozing energy. Looking around, virtually every adult holds an iconic white high-school graduation hat – a nod to Finland’s world-renowned education system and highly educated population.
As the clock strikes 18:00, an elaborate and zany tradition takes place whereby an elected group of university students in bright green jumpsuits are lifted into the air by a crane (yes, this is real life) and place a white graduation hat on the head of Manta. This signals the start of the vappu festivities. Almost instantaneously, hats move from hands to heads and the streets of Helsinki are taken over by a sea of white hats, serpentines and the sound of clinking glasses.
People are everywhere, as if the whole population came out of hibernation just to attend this event. It’s a kind of welcome chaos from the usually well-behaved Helsinki. There are university students in multi-colored jumpsuits (which are apparently “party uniforms” – I’m very confused by this), kids and elderly, and of course the keen partygoers.
As the night crawls on, I find myself at Uunisaari, a very small island near the Kaivopuisto area, talking to a guy who claims to be a “Vappu Veteran.” “The most seasoned vappu goers won’t stop till sunrise,” he tells me. Challenge accepted. As we party on to the early hours of the morning, it becomes clear that the Finns are closet party animals with an unhindered love for life – it just takes a little liquid courage to let it out.
For locals, it is a time to gather with friends and family, welcome the summertime and absolutely let loose. But what is it like for an Australian experiencing all of this for the first time? I’d say it’s the Nordic version of “Carnivale” – big, bold and colorful, with much more boozing and a whole lot of messy fun.
Traditionally May 1st is an international holiday honoring workers, commonly referred to in most countries as “Labour Day.” In Finland however, this day also coincides with three other important events: the name day of catholic saint Walburg (from where the name “vappu” originates); the end of the academic year for students; and the start of summertime. As you can imagine, for people who just spent a whole eight months in the dark, cold and wet, the start of sunshine is kind of a big deal. It’s no surprise then that the Finn’s celebrate May Day with a kind of flair that no other country can replicate.
Vappu morning is greeted with glorious sunshine and the celebrations continue with most of Helsinki (of course wearing their white hats) flocking to beautiful Kaivopuisto Park for champagne brunch. “My family and I have set up our vappu picnic under this same tree for the past 30 years,” a resident tells me. It appears that traditions play an important role in this celebration with no two traditions the same. People have created their own traditions, thereby defining their own meaning of vappu over the generations. I enjoy my morning with friends and their families, of course sipping champagne and devouring munkki – a deep fried, sugar coated donut (it’s love at first bite).
The best “after brunch bash” happens by the waterfront, where for the past ten years a group of boat owners throw an epic open-to-all party with a full DJ set and summer beats. I dance and drink and jump from boat to d-floor high on “vappu life.”
The vappu atmosphere is vibrant and uplifting, I’ve never experienced a public holiday like it. Tradition and modernity, young and old, crazy and cultured and sober and not-so-sober clash in the most harmonious way imaginable to create a holiday so unique one needs to experience it to truly understand it all. Vappu brings out a secret side to the Finnish people that is spontaneous, open, warm and crazy. In the best way possible.
As I walk home in the almost 22:00 sunset holding onto my vappu balloon, I think about the people I met, the way they celebrate the day and I can’t help but wonder what vappu traditions I will create in the years to come.