It's a chilly night of bright fires, witches' Sabbaths, widely held superstitions, roaming demon dogs, and a sky filled with reveling ghosts, hags, wizards, devils, goblins, imps, specters, and skeletons. And it takes place in the spring??? Indeed: approximately six months after Hallowe'en, nearly a dozen countries celebrate spring's own spooky holiday -- Walpurgis Night (also called Walpurgisnacht or May Day Eve in many countries, or the night before Beltane in Gaelic cultures). April 30th is more widely recognized than Hallowe'en as "the" ghostly holiday in most Central European and Scandinavian countries, where it has more cultural currency than October 31st.
The holiday is said to be Satan's last hurrah before the dawn of May Day (or Beltane), which brings the light, warmth, and life that denizens of the Pit seem to revile. All the witches and wizards of the world are said to celebrate on the nearest wooded hills, with the biggest, most raucous celebration taking place on Brocken (the highest peak of Germany's Harz Mountains) where Satan himself makes a special appearance. The Powers of Darkness go out with a bang just as they start their annual reign on October 31st: by taking advantage of the thin veil between the living and the dead and stirring up mischief.
If you hope to make it through the night without having a Night Mare haunt your bed, a witch curse your future plans, or a vampire drain the vitality from your body, here are a few suggestions from celebrants around the world.
7. BE WITH PEOPLE, HAVE FUN, AND BE LOUD
Walpurgis Night is all about community: about making a loud, wild noise to scare off the enemies of mankind, so try to get some friends together and make some mischief. Have a great time: prank each other (although it is traditional to prank strangers, that’s not quite in the spirit of human fellowship, is it?), make jokes, play music, and enjoy each other’s company.
Walpurgisnacht is all about banding together and flipping a collective bird to the misanthropic forces that are fighting to screw up our lives and confuse our togetherness and turn our love for each other into hate. Especially in today’s highly politicized, highly divided culture, make an effort to have fun, cut loose, and enjoy your friends.
6. APPEASE THE ROAMING DEVIL DOGS
In my house growing up, before we went to bed on Christmas Eve we left out cookies and milk for Santa Claus and carrots for his reindeer. In Central Europe they have a similar tradition of decidedly spookier kind. Since the invisible world unleashes its hellhounds on earth, it is considered advisable to keep the brutes happy and out of your house. To do this, a traditional treat left outside is Ankenschnitt: buttered bread liberally drizzled in butter. Make plenty of Ankenschnitt for the members of your household, but leave an extra yummy piece on your doorstep for the devil dogs to ensure a year of good health, good weather, and a good harvest.
5. THE HANGING OF THE GREENS
Like Christmas, Walpurgis Night is solemnized by decking the halls with greenery. In this instance, instead of evergreens, we’re talking about blooming springtime foliage: flowers, shrubbery, and – if at all possible – boughs of oak. After being blessed, these fragrant bundles are to be hung around your house’s openings to keep evil spirits at bay.
Festoon your door and window frames with the flowery sheaves and you can expect to scare off supernatural predators. Other ways to warn evil away include decorating a May pole with greens, ribbons, and flowers, and planting an upside-down broomstick (handle down) in your yard. To ensure a lucky love life, decorate a birch branch with bright ribbons and sneak it into your lover’s yard.
4. LISTEN TO THESE SONGS
Walpurgisnacht was the darling of composers during the Romantic era, inspiring everyone from Brahms to Schubert to write spooky songs loaded with ribald energy and moral chaos. In general I have to recommend THIS whole album: Gil Shaham’s “The Devil’s Dance.” Loaded with diabolical classical music depicting witches, ghosts, imps, demons, fiddling skeletons, witches’ Sabbaths, and chuckling devils. I listen to it at Hallowe’en, too, of course, and recommend it for any spooky party, any time of year.
Specifically I have to recommend the classics: Camille Saint-Saens’ “Danse Macabre,” Hector Berlioz’s “Witches’ Sabbath,” Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain," Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” Johannes Brahms’ “Walpurgisnacht,” Felix Mendelssohn’s “Witches’ Song,” Pablo Sarasate’s “Fantasy on Faust,” and Guiseppe Tartini’s “The Devil’s Trill.” Frantic, wild, and decadent, this music will immediately set the tone for any witchy gathering.
3. READ THESE STORIES AND POEMS
It wouldn’t be an Oldstyle Tales post if we didn’t discuss literature. The most obvious choice for reading would probably be Goethe’s “Faust, Part I.,” with its famous Chapter 25 (which depicts a witches’ Sabbath in wild detail). Other famous readings include Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain,” and Bram Stoker’s short story “Dracula’s Guest.” There are other tales and poems that might not deal directly with Walpurgisnacht, but whose plots involve witchcraft and wizardry: Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet,” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries,” Arthur Machen’s “The White People,” and M. R. James’ “The Ash Tree.”
2. DRINK UP!
Like New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day, Walpurgisnacht is universally considered a night of extreme merriment. Heavy drinking on April 30th was de rigeur for most countries. The traditional drink of Walpurgis Night is mead – delicious honey wine. Parties in Scandinavia and Central Europe frequently come with bottles of smooth, golden mead, and German gatherings traditionally feature “Maibowle” (or May wine), an aromatic wine punch.
To make Maibowle, you will need: 1 bottle of Riesling, 6-8 sprigs of sweet woodruff (or lavender or tarragon), 4 tsp of powdered sugar, 1 bottle of dry Champagne, 4 Tbl of brandy (ideally Asbach Uralt), lemon slices, and halved strawberries. Steep the herbs in the wine for half an hour; remove them and pour the wine into a punch bowl with the brandy and sugar; stir gently and serve over ice with a couple strawberry halves and a lemon slice.
1. BONFIRES, FIREWORKS, AND CLAMOR!
Walpurgisnacht without a bonfire is like Christmas without a tree. For hundreds of years massive bonfires have been lit on the highest hill of a locality to frighten off the spirits of the invisible world. Loud music, singing, and instruments filled the air with wild noise designed to keep evil at bay. By the Early Modern Era, gunpowder was introduced to the mix, and fireworks, cannon fire, and musketry was added to the raucous clatter.
Even if you have to pull up the Yule Log on Netflix, it simply is not Walpurgis Night without a bonfire, so find some way to gather around the image of lapping flames whether it is around a screen, a massive pile of wood, or a few logs leaning together in a backyard fire pit (like I will). While your neighborhood might not appreciate the cacophony, consider stoking a bonfire in your backyard and pouring some extra brandy into your Maibowle to help keep you warm – stay up late and swap stories while you keep the fire tall and snappy, and try not to look overhead at the fleeting shapes in the night sky.
BONUS TIP: WATCH NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN
Oh yes, and while this Disney macabre masterpiece is set on June 23rd (Mussorgsky's original name is "St. John's Night on Bald Mountain"), its deliciously visionary depiction of a witches' Sabbath makes it a MUST viewing tradition for April 30th. Wait until the whole world around you is drenched in darkness, turn off all of your lights, pour some Maibowle, and sit back for an experience that has fascinated viewers for generations.