The current festival is, in most countries that celebrate it, named after the English missionary Saint Walpurga (ca. 710–777/9). As Walpurga was canonized on 1 May (ca. 870), she became associated with May Day, especially in the Finnish and Swedish calendars. The eve of May Day, traditionally celebrated with dancing, came to be known as Walpurgisnacht ("Walpurga's night"). The name of the holiday is Walpurgisnacht in German and Dutch, Valborgsmässoafton in Swedish, Vappu in Finnish, Volbriöö, (Walpurgi öö) in Estonian, Valpurgijos naktis in Lithuanian, Valpurgu nakts or Valpurgi in Latvian, čarodějnice and Valpuržina noc in Czech.
The German term is recorded in 1668 by Johannes Praetorius (writer) as S. Walpurgis Nacht or S. Walpurgis Abend. An earlier mention of Walpurgis and S. Walpurgis Abend is in the 1603 edition of the Calendarium perpetuum of Johann Coler, who also refers to the following day, 1 May, as Jacobi Philippi, feast day of the apostles James the Less and Philip in the Catholic calendar.
The 17th century German tradition of a meeting of sorcerers and witches on May Day is influenced by the descriptions of Witches' Sabbaths in 15th and 16th century literature.
30 April is pálení čarodějnic ("burning of the witches") or čarodějnice ("the witches") in the Czech Republic, the day when winter is ceremonially brought to the end by the burning of rag and straw witches or just broomsticks on bonfires around the country. The festival offers Czechs the chance to eat, drink and be merry around a roaring fire.
In Estonia, Volbriöö is celebrated throughout the night of 30 April and into the early hours of 1 May, where 1 May is a public holiday called "Spring Day" (Kevadpüha). Volbriöö is an important and widespread celebration of the arrival of spring in the country. Influenced by German culture, the night originally stood for the gathering and meeting of witches. Modern people still dress up as witches to wander the streets in a carnival-like mood.
The Volbriöö celebrations are especially vigorous in Tartu, the university town in southern Estonia. For Estonian students in student corporations (fraternities and sororities), the night starts with a traditional procession through the streets of Tartu, followed by visiting each other's corporation houses throughout the night.
In Finland, Walpurgis day (Vappu) is one of the four biggest holidays along with Christmas Eve, New Year's Eve, and Midsummer (Juhannus). Walpurgis witnesses the biggest carnival-style festival held in the streets of Finland's towns and cities. The celebration, which begins on the evening of 30 April and continues to 1 May, typically centres on copious consumption of sima, sparkling wine and other alcoholic beverages. Student traditions, particularly those of the engineering students, are one of the main characteristics of Vappu. Since the end of the 19th century, this traditional upper-class feast has been appropriated by university students. Many lukio (university-preparatory high school) alumni (who are thus traditionally assumed to be university bound), wear a cap. One tradition is to drink sima, a home-made low-alcohol mead, along with freshly cooked funnel cakes.
In the capital Helsinki and its surrounding region, fixtures include the capping (on 30 April at 6 pm) of the Havis Amanda, a nude female statue in Helsinki, and the biennially alternating publications of ribald matter called Äpy and Julkku, by engineering students of Aalto University. Both are sophomoric; but while Julkku is a standard magazine, Äpy is always a gimmick. Classic forms have included an Äpy printed on toilet paper and a bedsheet. Often, the magazine has been stuffed inside standard industrial packages, such as sardine cans and milk cartons. For most university students, Vappu starts a week before the day of celebration. The festivities also include a picnic on 1 May, which is sometimes prepared in a lavish manner, particularly in Ullanlinnanmäki—and Kaisaniemi for the Swedish-speaking population—in Helsinki city.
In Germany, Walpurgisnacht, the night from 30 April to 1 May, is the night when witches are reputed to hold a large celebration on the Brocken and await the arrival of spring.
A scene in Goethe's Faust Part One is called "Walpurgisnacht," and one in Faust Part Two is called "Classical Walpurgisnacht." The last chapter of book five in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is also called "Walpurgisnacht." In Edward Albee's 1962 play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Act Two is entitled "Walpurgisnacht."
While the name Walpurgis is taken from the eighth-century English missionary Saint Walburga, "Valborg", as it is called in Swedish, has very little to do with religion and everything to do with the arrival of spring. The forms of celebration vary in different parts of the country and between different cities. Walpurgis celebrations are not a family occasion but rather a public event, and local groups often take responsibility for organising them to encourage community spirit in the village or neighbourhood.
In the Middle Ages, the administrative year ended on 30 April. Accordingly, this was a day of festivity among the merchants and craftsmen of the town, with trick-or-treat, dancing and singing in preparation for the forthcoming celebration of spring. Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough writes, "The first of May is a great popular festival in the more midland and southern parts of Sweden. On the eve of the festival, huge bonfires, which should be lighted by striking two flints together, blaze on all the hills and knolls.
Walpurgis bonfires are part of a Swedish tradition dating back to the early 18th century. At Walpurgis (Valborg), farm animals were let out to graze and bonfires (majbrasor, kasar) lit to scare away predators." In Southern Sweden, an older tradition, no longer practiced, was for the younger people to collect greenery and branches from the woods at twilight. These were used to adorn the houses of the village. The expected reward for this task was to be paid in eggs.
Choral singing is a popular pastime in Sweden, and on Walpurgis Eve virtually every choir in the country is busy. Singing traditional songs of spring is widespread throughout the country. The songs are mostly from the 19th century and were spread by students' spring festivities. The strongest and most traditional spring festivities are also found in the old university cities, such as Uppsala and Lund, where undergraduates, graduates, and alumni gather at events that last most of the day from early morning to late night on April 30th, or siste april ("The Last Day Of April") as it is called in Lund, or sista april as it is called in Uppsala. For students, Walpurgis Eve heralds freedom. Exams are over and only the odd lecture remains before term ends. On the last day of April, the students don their characteristic white caps and sing songs of welcome to spring, to the budding greenery and to a brighter future.
More modern Valborg celebrations, particularly among Uppsala students, often consist of enjoying a breakfast including champagne and strawberries. During the day, people gather in parks, drink considerable amounts of alcoholic beverages, barbecue, and generally enjoy the weather, if it happens to be favorable.
As in all Germanic countries Walpurgis Nacht was celebrated in areas of what is now the Netherlands. It is not celebrated today due to the national Koninginnedag falling on the same date, though the new koningsdag (king's day) is on the 27th of April. The island of Texel celebrates a festival known as the 'Meierblis' (roughly translated as 'May-Blaze') on that same day, when bonfires are lit near nightfall, just as on Walpurgis. Occasional mentions to the ritual occur, and at least once a feminist group co-opted the name to call for attention to the position of women (following the example of German women's organizations), a variety of the Take Back the Night phenomenon.
Still, in recent years a renewed interest in pre-Christian religion and culture has led to renewed interest in Walpurgis Night as well. In 1999 suspicions were raised of a Walpurgis festival celebrated by Satanists in Putten (Gelderland) with local Christian parties in local government calling for a ban, but that such a festival existed, and that it was Satanic, was believed only by those political parties. Rumors that Satanic sects celebrate Walpurgis Night come from other towns as well, with the local churches in Dokkum (Friesland) organizing, in 2003, a service to pray to the Holy Spirit to counter such Satanic action.