Walpurgisnacht: a holiday shrouded in mystery

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walpurgisnacht

Walpurgisnacht, also known as Hexennacht or Hexenbrunnen is a traditional holiday celebrated in parts of Central Europe, most notably Germany. Walpurgisnacht is one of the few remaining holidays that embrace both pagan and Christian customs, turning the celebration into a fun festival for people of all ages.

What is Walpurgisnacht?

Walpurgisnacht is a holiday traditionally celebrated on the 30th of April. Officially, it is a church holiday celebrating Saint Walpurga. Nevertheless, it has now become a Halloween-like celebration, in which people of different faiths take part.

On the night between the 30th of April and the 1st of May people light bonfires and fireworks, impersonate witches, play loud music, and, in parts of Southern Germany, neighbors enjoy playing pranks on each other on this festive day. Some old traditions, such as living out Ankenschnitt, bread dipped in butter and honey and hanging greenery off the front door to ward off evil still survive today. Pilgrims will often pay homage to Saint Walpurga on this day as well.

 How did it all begin?

The German tribes used to celebrate the coming of the warm season during mid-spring. Lore has it that all witches and warlocks of the land gathered on the eve of May 1st on the highest peak of the Harz Mountains, Brocken. They reveled there, lit bonfires, danced, and celebrated the passing of another winter. It was thought that, during this time, the barrier between our world and the other opened slightly. Additionally, pagan folklore places the wedding of the goddess Freya and Wotan on the 30th of April, on the Brocken peak.

Who was Saint Walpurga?

 

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Heilige Walburga

Saint Walpurga was a dedicated nun who traveled from her homeland, England, to Germany as a missionary. She is known for her healing work and her successful attempt at converting the heathens to Christianity. She was associated by pagans with Frau Holda, goddess of spinning and fertility, whose wedding took place on May Day, according to legend. Tale also has it, that Walpurga could cure people of witches’ hexes and curses.

She was canonized after her death on the 30th of April. The Catholic Church thus decided to celebrate her on this date. Saint Walpurga’s celebration coincidentally overlaps with the pagan celebration of spring. The two have remained inextricably linked ever since.

Celebrations during Medieval Times

During the Dark Ages, people tried to ward off evil spirits on Walpurgisnacht.  Ironically, they also stirred clear of witches and used this celebration to fend them off. They made loud noises, often banging hard on the walls of their own houses, lit bonfires, burned straw men and old belongings, especially brooms in an attempt to protect themselves from evil spirits.

witches were still thought to celebrate the night on the Brocken peak. It was commonly believed that they engaged in talks with the Devil and performed rituals to diminish the crop and slay the cattle. However, the so-called witches were probably pagans, driven away by the Catholic Church and forced to celebrate their holidays on a mountain peak concealed by thick clouds and mist.

Walpurgisnacht today

Today, Walpurgisnacht is still widely celebrated throughout Germany. The biggest celebrations take place in the villages near Brocken, where people light huge fires across the fields and the traditional Witches’ Dance is held. Visitors are always welcome and locals are encouraged to take part in this beautiful holiday.

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Walpurgis Night bonfire
Want to know more about German culture? Check out this article!

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