Happy May Day
I think of all the Finnish holidays, Vappu is the one I had the fewest expectations for. May Day isn’t something we celebrate in the U.S., so the only idea I had was something vague about dancing around a pole with some ribbons and flowers tied to it. Turns out, there are a lot of May Day stories and traditions, mostly developing through a complex fermentation over time of very old ritualistic beliefs about the magic connection between springtime and fertility, the influx of Christian ideology, and various local customs.
In Finland, the experience of Vappu is kind of a city-wide graduation party/spring festival. On the evening of April 30th everything closed early and around 5pm everyone headed to the city centre. There was a huge crane set up by the Havis Amanda fountain in the market square and some students were suspended from the crane. At 6pm there was a very brief countdown and they placed a student cap on the head of the statue, confetti flew everywhere and people cheered, drank, and put on their own hats before heading to the Senate square for what appeared to be a giant dance party.
The next morning at 9am, a smallish crowd gathered in Kaisaniemi park to hear the old student choir. It was a bit cold and there were mostly elderly people there, some families, and a few students getting a head start on the picnicking. I didn’t stay long, mostly because there wasn’t much to see and being a vertically challenged person, I couldn’t see it anyway. I did, however, see a lot of Angry Birds balloons, like this guy throwing some serious shade …
…possibly at this guy.
There were ribbons and balloons everywhere, and we later realized that most of them were from various politicians plying everyone with propaganda, but no one seemed to mind. They were free balloons, after all, and it gave everything a kind of very monochromatically Finnish atmosphere.
I got to borrow a student cap for the picnic so I wouldn’t feel left out, and I thought I looked pretty good in it pretending to be Finnish for a day. The student cap is received when graduating from high school after taking the exams, which historically count as matriculation to university. The educational system here is much different than in the U.S. where you have to basically start over and reapply for every new degree. Here it’s much more fluid, and it’s expected that you’ll continue on for a while. Even the terminology is suggestive of a difference in attitude: the Master’s thesis is called a gradu, and as a PhD student I’m called jatko-opiskelija, literally, a continuation-student. Many Master’s students will start work on PhD projects while still writing their gradu, and it’s not an arduous application process but rather seen as a logical way to continue a career in academia.
A friend told me that the doctoral degree grantees traditionally have a role in Vappu too; after they’ve been allowed to carry the doctoral sword, they can roam the streets on April 30th and punish anyone who wears the cap too early by cutting off the tassel with the sword! It’s considered very bad form indeed to wear the cap before 6pm on April 30th.
People who have graduated in the past can also wear the student cap and overalls, and it was really interesting to see some older men wearing very old versions of the same colors the young students were wearing. There were a ton of older people wearing their student caps, and I could see how proud they were to wear them. Probably 75-80% of the Vappu celebrators were wearing the caps, so it was a great sense of community that spanned many generations of tradition. They said that the dirtier your cap gets, the more stories you have to tell, and some of the older men had caps that were almost brown with
age dirt champagne stories.
Students had been walking around all week in colorful coveralls with patches on them. It was explained to me that the colors represent a certain academic group, and you earn the patches by doing things and going to events, much like the process of pledging to a fraternity or sorority in the U.S. I noticed that it was more “cool” to wear the coveralls with the sleeves tied around your waist rather than as a full-body suit, although certain groups seemed to have everyone wearing the sleeves.
Besides the student coveralls and caps, Vappu tradition is kind of a grab bag of crazy. Not quite fancy dress, and not anything organized like we have in the states, with standard flag pinwheels for Fourth of July or cardboard tiaras and noisemakers for New Year. Here, it’s anything you can get your hands on to be crazy and fun–anything goes!
Just some of the things I saw include: a guy wearing a horse head, two-inch purple false eyelashes, a middle-aged woman wearing tinsel as a wig, duck calls, a man wearing a Joker mask, two middle-aged men dressed in Spandex Pink Panther costumes, people wearing ribbons around their necks, a balloon shaped like a champagne bottle, a tiny yellow top hat, a dog in long-sleeved jumpsuit, a guy in a penguin suit, and many portable saunas.
We picnicked in Kaivopuisto, a large and beautiful park that looks out over the beach in the southernmost part of the city. It was cold and rainy, but it still looked like the entire city was out; the grass was covered with tents and blankets, and people blasted music.
We lasted for only a few hours before the rain really set in, and we moved to a bar, then to a Nepalese restaurant, to another park after the rain stopped, and finally back to my friend’s house for relaxing and sauna. I didn’t get any sima or tippaleipä, although I was warned by several people that tippaleipä would disappoint someone expecting American-style funnel cake. It’s late enough in the spring now to be looking forward to the berry and snap pea vendors, anyway.
It didn’t seem like the activities were very structured; there weren’t a lot of games, and it wasn’t like a carnival. But it was kind of nice that the only real expectation was to hang out, to spend time with people you care about and have fun with. And with everyone in their student caps, it hit me strongly with a sense of community, valuing above all knowledge and enlightenment, and sharing that with your student family, celebrating both the coming of spring, and the achievements of the past.
That’s something that I really love about Finland, and living in Helsinki: there are so many traditions that bring people together in celebration of things that matter. I loved walking down the streets in the city seeing groups of students and elderly couples alike wearing the same hat, the whole city coming together as one community to celebrate each other and the history of the university that’s such a central part of society here.