Vappu: Celebrate the end of winter
Finland throws a mean party on the First of May, and, one year, I got to go. Vappu, as the Finns call it, is something to see. You might even want to plan a trip to Helsinki to experience it.
Vappu is a hoot.
Origins and how Vappu is celebrated today
Named for Saint Walburg (Valburg in Finnish), but with origins going back to pagan times, Vappu combines a few celebrations into one, with festivities spreading over two days. There is a focus on workers, as with much of the world for International Workers Day, but also on the end of the school term, and, I think especially, people really getting into marking end of the long, brutal Nordic winter. By May 1, the days have gotten long, with more daylight than I’ve ever personally experienced, and spring is in the air (if still chilly).
Vappu kicks off 30 April
In Helskinki, Vappu kicks off on 30 April (also known as Vappuaatto, or Vappu Eve) by students from the University of Helsinki placing a ylioppilaslakki (graduation cap) on the statue known as Havis Amanda (a rather coquettish nude) on the Esplandi. They do this by being lowered by a crane, to more fanfare than I thought possible.
Vappu proper on next day features a huge picnic in Kaivopuisto, one of the oldest parks on the tip of Helsinki’s peninsula. Everyone brings champagne or sima (a type of mead), and there’s dancing and music (not always together). Really, you have to experience it!
I was a bit of a Vappu skeptic
I’d read about Vappu before my trip, but it did not really prepare me. I mean, being stereotypical here, when you think of Finland, you don’t exactly think of wild parties. The country has a word, kalsarikänni, for staying home, drinking wine in your underwear, without any intention of going out, for goodness’ sake. (The word translates to pantsdrunk. I’ve tried it and recommend.)
Finns have oddball festivals
Finns do have some oddball festivals like Kaljakellunta (floating down the river in rafts in large groups, drinking beer), among others. And, they aren’t shy about their bodies, as anyone who has ever been to a Finnish sauna can attest. But they aren’t exactly a bunch that one associates with crowds and parties.
A holiday with donuts
A few evenings before , the server at Spis (we’ll talk more about dining in Helsinki, but suffice it to say dine here), brought me little donuts. When I looked confused (the restaurant is known for exquisite treatment of vegetables), he smiled and said, “We have a tradition on the First of May. We eat donuts.” (They are known as munkki in Finnish. I have a recipe for munkki-inspired muffins, I liked them so much.)
I am on board with donuts
Well, any holiday that involves donuts is a good one in my book, and they are delicious in Finland, as are other sweets. Other places I went, I started hearing more about Vappu. I’d already planned on checking it out, but all the fuss piqued my interest.
Let the wild Vappu rumpus start!
Lucky me, I didn’t need to travel far to figure out what all the fuss was about, as I my flat on Kasarmikatu in Helsinki’s Ullanlinna neighborhood put me equidistant from Vappu’s two main locations: the Esplanadi in central Helsinki, where Havis Amanda resides, and Kaivopuisto, where the drunken picnicking would take place.
Vappuaatto on the Esplanadi
On April 30, Vappuaatto, I walked from my flat, up the street, following the crowd, and somehow remembered a side street that allowed me to score an excellent view of Havis Amanda and the crane carrying a bunch of students in jumpsuits and crazy masks ready to declare Amanda a graduate.
The entire population of Finland shows up to watch this spectacle, waving their own caps, and singing. That’s only a mild exaggeration about the entire population of Finland. Seriously, the place is packed. Get there early.
And the real party starts
As soon as the cap dons the dame, champagne corks start flying and the Finns get down to partying with champagne, Sima (a low-alcohol mead), and donuts. I’m telling you, it’s a good, if very strange for the foreigner, party. It went late, though I did not.
The next day on May 1, Vappu proper, I followed the crowd yet again to Kaivopuisto, conveniently also located a hop, skip, and a jump away from where I stayed. I’d spent a lot of time in that park and found it a peaceful spot to sit and watch the water and read, and drink champagne at the little outdoor café.
From a calm little park to one heck of a party
On Vappu, Kaivopuisto was not calm at all. There was tango. Students playing marching band instruments. Champagne everywhere. Donuts. Throngs of people in sailor caps and costumes partying with their friends and families. Balloons.
It was loud.
And absolutely fantastic.
Oddly a bit lonely for me
Walking through the crowd, without a cap, and without a bottle of champagne (I did have a glass from the café in the park, along with a sweet), I definitely felt like an outsider. Almost a little bit lonely.
The only sober person in Finland
Also, if I’m being honest, I felt exhausted. This was my second to last day in Helsinki, after a week’s work trip in Vienna (I know, rough, right?). I was probably the only reasonably sober person in Finland, too. But in that loneliness and exhaustion, I also felt oddly at peace, and incredibly happy to see something so utterly new and strange to me.
I took great delight in seeing a people with a reputation for being downright dour whoop it up like the beautiful oddballs they are.
I hung out in the park most of the afternoon, wandered around the neighborhood a bit, and then headed back to my flat in the evening. The party continued on.
Like Vappu never even happened
The next morning, I walked through Kaivopuisto early, just as the cleaning crews had arrived. By mid-morning, you would have never known that the park had been the site of a wild party just the day before. It was back to its calm, pristine self.
And, by early evening, I was back in Vienna, due to fly back home the next morning.
Celebrate Vappu in Helsinki!
30 April–1 May
30 April. In Helsinki, graduating university students don a cap on the Havish Amanda statue on the Esplandi. If you can, try to get on one of the side streets nearest the statue for the best view.
1 May. Head over to Kaivopuisto park to join in the festivities!
Good to know
Vappu proper is a holiday in Finland, and many shops and restaurants will be closed. If you want sima or champagne and picnic supplies, stock up early. You can get some refreshments at Kaivopuisto.
If you want a good view of the Havish Amanda cap, get on a side street off the Esplanade
Safety and solo female travel
Overall, I found this to be a exceedingly safe event, especially for something that does get rather drunken. However, I’d use judgement walking around at night.
Vappu in Helsinki 2023
For the latest information on Vappu 2023, check out this website.
What wonderful festivals have you experienced in your travels? Let me know in the comments!