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Vappu: the Origin Story

This week, we’ll look at the origins and history of Vappu. Don’t know what Vappu is? Well, this is for you. And even if you know, you might still learn something here.

Student Celebration

Vappu is the biggest student celebration in Finland, it’s also one of the main holidays. On the first of May, it’s hard to walk around without noticing the white caps, overalls, and happy students walking the streets. What most people don’t know, is that there are centuries of tradition behind people drinking a bit too much on the 30th of April and the 1st of May. In this first blog, we’ll cover that. The second blog will instead look at the scheduling, traditions, and events taking place both on the 30th of April and 1st of May.


As for almost everything, there’s a story behind Vappu. More precisely, there’s a saint, Saint Walpurga (also Valburg in Finnish).
Very quickly, Saint Walpurga was a christian missionary of English origin who lived in the territory that now constitutes Germany, in the eight century. She was made a saint in 870, on the first of May (see where this is going…). Some of the reasons why she was canonized included fighting against pest, rabies and whooping cough, as well as against witchcraft (she was also apparently excellent at multitasking).

Saint Walpurga. Source.

As a result, the night between the 30th of April and the 1st of May is usually called ”Walpurgis Night”, and it is a tradition is some places to light a fire on that night to ward off evil witches. The tradition actually goes back further, to the celebration by Germanic peoples of the coming of summer.

And if you’re wondering what’s the link between Vappu and witches, it’s simply the name. Vappu comes from Walpurga.

Back to the student celebration

Even though Vappu was officially recognized as a public holiday only in 1979, it has a longer history in Finland. Vappu was originally a celebration of spring in Finland, celebrating the Saint Walpurga.

Vappu progressively became a student celebration, a tradition apparently coming from Sweden. Already in the 1870s, Vappu day was a popular event for student. Vappu was originally celebrated mostly in Helsinki, but there are now events in almost every sizable city in Finland.

Vappu in Helsinki in the early 1900s.

The first of May also coincides with workers day, which is usually celebrated in parallel. In the early 1900s, some workers proposed to move it to the first Sunday of June in order to have better weather, but this remained a minority position.

Student Caps

Except the celebration itself, another component of Vappu has an interesting history: the student cap.

Now, if you haven’t take part in the first of May celebration yet, you might wonder what I’m talking about. So just a quick explanation: all Finnish student are allowed to wear a student cap upon completion of high school (or university). Those student caps are usually worn mostly on Vappu, even though this used to extend to the whole summer. They are also part of one of the main traditions of Vappu, but that will come in the next blog.

A typical Finnish student cap. Source.

Ylioppilaslakki in Finnish, Studentmössa in Swedish, the student cap is a symbol of education. As many Finnish academic traditions, the student cap was borrowed from the Swedish academic tradition.

Although they look almost all the same way, the cockade at their front varies from one university to the other. In the University of Oulu, every faculty even has its own.

The color of the lining inside can also vary on the basis of language or origin, and some faculties might have particular elements to their caps. This is the case of engineering students, who have a tassel on their cap.

A cap from an engineering student from Tampere University. Source.

Maria Tschetschulin, the first woman to enroll in a Finnish university, in 1870. Source.

Living in Finland for more than three years, Michel is a Canadian student who is now completing his master’s degree in ÅAU. His interests are quite diversified and include ice hockey, history, fishing, as well as many other things. He is also a member of the student ambassador network of South-West Finland.