Vappu (1 May) is probably the biggest annual “public” celebration in Finland – while there are other days that are celebrated within families (Easter, Christmas, Independence Day), Vappu is a time for everyone to get together.
Vappu traditions differ between areas in Finland, but in Helsinki the festivities officially start with the “capping” of the Havis Amanda statue in the Kauppatori (Market Square) at 6 pm on the eve of Vappu. While we’ve previously tasted Vappu (you can read about some of the foods and drinks associated with this day: tippaleipä, rosette and kotisima elsewhere on the blog), this year I decided to visit this kick-off of Vappu in Helsinki.
The ceremony is theoretically a simple one – some university students give the statue a quick scrub and then pop a student cap on its head (or at least an outsized representation of the ylioppalaslakki that all high school graduated have the right to wear – more info here), followed by everyone else also putting on their own student caps. However, in practice it is a but more complicated due to the scale of the event! The different tertiary institutions based in the Helsinki metropol have turns at having their students run the show – in 2013 it was the turn of the Hanken School of Economics. This year the students doing the washing and capping were lowered by a crane around the statue, with another crane lifting media above the crowd of 30’000 and yet another crane carrying the giant white cap up to the students. Then add in a few already-drunk students, merchants selling balloons (another Vappu tradition), can-collectors searching for containers that can be returned for a deposit, and lots of police… it is a pretty busy scene.
What was interesting it that the whole crowd is really mixed – people of all ages, each celebrating in their own fashion, but getting along well with each other. This is also true for the festivities on Vappu itself, when crowds gather to picnic in two of the city’s downtown parks; Kaivopuisto and Kaisaniemipuisto (Swedish-speaking Finns mainly in the latter) – young and old share the space amicably. I found two (long) videos from this year’s capping ceremony and Vappu picnics on YouTube that show this nicely – you can watch them here and here.
I’ll not repeat the history of Vappu, which is available in great detail from an old Helsingin Sanomat article, but will encourage you to brave the crowds next year to take part in this event if you’ve not done it before!
If you’d like to know some more about the lovely Havis Amanda statue (for example – what is its real name?), you can visit the Helsinki Art Museum’s excellent website or check out Wikipedia (as usual!). And to read a bit about how the traditions differ in other parts of Finland you can check out some information about celebrations in Rauma, Oulu, Tampere and Turku.