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A man celebrating his first day of receiving a pension during the May Day’s Eve in 2016 in Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

On Monday the streets and parks of the capital will be taken over by students wearing overalls, sipping champagne—singing and screaming while diving into the fountain of Havis Amanda in the corner of the Market Square.

“Finns Celebrate May Day With A Kind of Flair That Others Can’t Duplicate,” Finland Today wrote last year after our reporter, who had just arrived here, wrote after observing the celebrations for two days. “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,” our reporter wrote.

The crowning of Manta

This year the crowning of Manta (nickname for the famous sculpture Havis Amanda) will have a larger program than before. “This new kind of event celebrates our Student Union’s 150th Anniversary.

Our aim has been to turn the occasion into a joyful public event that is not limited just to the moment of crowning,” said Krista Laitila, vice chair from the Board of the Student Union of the University of Helsinki.

On previous May Days, Manta has generally been crowned by members of the student unions’ boards. This year, the Student Union of the University of Helsinki (HYY) is making an exception to this, as the crowning will be conducted by a volunteer team called the Manta Crew.

The crowning ceremony will feature live music, balloons, magic and glitter.

The program will run as follows in the Market Square:

Free makeup and tattoos on the audience’s faces by Glitternisti at 16:00.

A DJ will start playing from 16:30 forward.

At 17:00, a magician will make your mind spin.

The washing of Havis Amanda will begin at 17:15.

A live band called Get Me will start playing at 17:30, aiming to lift the festive mood to its climax.

Manta will receive her cap at 18:00. According to the tradition, everyone else in Finland will only be allowed to put their student caps on after her.

The weather

For southern Finland, the weather forecast promises better than last year. According to Markus Mäntykannas, a meteorologist at MTV News, “a cold May Day with flurries of sleet is the least likely scenario.” The May Day Eve (Monday) looks warm and the temperatures could rise to as high as 15 degrees Celsius.

In the middle parts of the country, the temperature is likely to stay around 10 degrees and it definitely gets chillier in the north.

On May Day, it’s likely that heavy rains will fall over most of the country.

It’s good to remember that on Tuesday, May 1, many services are closed.

Banks are closed.

Alkos are closed. (Overall, Alko reports the consumption of sparkling wines to increase by 510 percent, champagne 300 percent during the week before May Day.)

Post offices are closed.

However, many grocery stores are open.

On Monday and Tuesday, Sunday service will operate on all HSL routes.

Metro will operate three hours longer. The headway is 5 minutes between Tapiola-Itäkeskus and between Itäkeskus-Vuosaari/ Mellunmäki and Tapiola-Matinkylä the headway is 10 minutes. The last metros operate as long as to 2:30 in the morning.

Upper secondary school students celebrating in the Market Square in 1920. Picture: Ivan Timiriasew/The Helsinki City Museum

Caps and drinking habits from Sweden

Vappu is a name day for Saint Walpurga, an abbess in Francia. In the 8th century, it was known as “valpuri” in Finland, a feast in the rural Finland where children were running around wearing cowbells around their necks.

Today, you may see grownups running around wrapped in streamers with half of their buttcrack showing, but the roots of such beastly behavior derive from the 19th century. Finnish secondary school graduates brought home some of the drinking habits from the Swedish university city, Lund, where vappu was celebrated as a spring festival. The first student caps are also said to have derived from Lund in 1865 but the tradition became widespread in the 1870s.

In Finland, the date of the spring celebrations had to be pushed further into May because the weather tended to still be chilly during the first days of the month and the students wanted to celebrate outside.

By the end of the 19th century, however, the celebrations moved back to May 1, and the festivities became a habit inside the restaurants.

In 1927, the eating and drinking habits started to become firmly established and the students started favoring parks as their restaurants while paying attention to more important things than the weather.

“Somebody has dropped something in hot grease and noticed that it becomes a good tidbit,” said Eija Ylikahri, from the Martha Organization of Satakunta, who teaches the baking of funnel cakes. In Finland, the messy spiral is known as tippaleipä, which dates back to the 18th century with roots in the medieval Persian world.

Sima, mead, also known as honey wine—popular drink among the gentry—became the drink of the May Day. But not the only drink.

While the most civilized people of the sober society wished that the sweet sparkling brew would replace punch and hard liquor, their hopes were washed down with the smelly urine to the Cholera basin in front of the Market Square. Wild drinking had become a habit among the students.

Havis Amanda received her student’s cap for the first time in 1932 during midnight. Somewhat forty years later, the tradition had started to resemble a riot. It had become a breakneck frenzy that attracted huge crowds of shitfaced students.

As a solution, the crowning ceremony had to be scheduled for the early evening.

Good to know:

Overalls became a symbol of students of universities, polytechnics and other establishments of higher education in the 1970s.

May Day balloons have dotted the streets of Helsinki since 1903. They came to Helsinki from St. Petersburg.

The May Day celebrations of the students became a widespread tradition with the coverage of the national press.

May Day celebration of the working class in the Senate Square in Helsinki in 1971. Picture: Rista Simo SER

Celebration of work

The other part of the May Day tradition is rooted in the working class society. You may see some people wearing welder’s overalls and Hankkija caps (the nationwide store chain for agriculture-related products) but the most visible symbol of the tradition is political speeches and marches. The first visible May Day march was arranged in 1895. Since 1979, May Day has been celebrated as the day of Finnish work, and it has received the status of a national flag day.

The most famous celebration is held in the Hakaniemi Square at 10:00 in the morning of May 1. From there, the march will continue to the Railway Square where labor unions and left-wing politicians and social democrats will hold speeches.

Protests have also been tradtionally part of the celebrations. This year, a small segment of anarchists will join the march while calling their protest “Ungovernable May Day.” “The activation model has cut the benefits of the majority of the unemployed but this is not enough for the government. Their current goal is to facilitate layoffs from small enterprises and temporary contracts for young employees,” the anarchists declare in a bulletin. “No other Nordic country forces trans people to be sterilised if they want to correct their legal gender. Sipilä’s government is now violating trans people’s human rights out of principle,” they continue. The rest is about “giving the boot” to Sipilä’s government.

In the afternoon, thousands of students will gather for a picnic in the Kaivopuisto park. In the previous years, the rain has not bothered them much.
“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,” our reporter wrote last year.

Go ahead, try it yourself!

Source for the historical facts: ‘Uusi ajantieto,’ WSOY.

Tony Öhberg