What comes to your mind when someone mentions the 8th century? Could it be the introduction of the triangle harp by the Picts in Scotland? Or maybe the reign of Charlemagne, King of the Franks. Or the popular epic poem Beowulf, which could be as old as the 8th Century? Or marauding Vikings invading the coasts of Europe? Or of the Bendedictine nun and English missionary to the Frankish Empire Walburga, later to be canonized on May 1, 870, one hundred years after her death?
St. Walburga was born in Devonshire in 710. She was raised in a Benedictine Abbey during the time her father and brothers travelled as pilgrims to far-away holy lands. After twenty-six years in the abbey, she joined her brother St. Boniface in Germany to help with his missionary work there.
The goal was to strip the Germanic tribes of any pagan tendencies that might still flourish. St. Boniface prided himself as the destroyer of their greatest symbol: an oak tree in Geismar dedicated to Thor. The Germanic tribe believed that when felled, lighting would strike them all down. When Boniface felled the tree and nothing happened, he moved in and converted his counterparts to Christianity.
The eve of St. Walburga’s canonization, April 30, is still associated with pagans and pagan rituals. Traditionally, the eve of the Walburga Feast is celebrated with rites of fertility, bonfires and dancing. Lovers would commit the sex act on the fields to transfer their fertility to the soil, hoping for good yields. Witches were rumored to fly through the night, especially to the Blocksberg, a peak in the Harz Mountains often shrouded in mysterious cloud cover. A birch tree, a symbol of fertility, was erected and was the site of a traditional dance around the May Pole.
The name Walpurgisnacht was coined by Goethe in his play Faust. Today, the night of April 30-May 1 is in many European countries a reason to party. Finnland, Sweden, Holland and Denmark also observe this day that falls exactly a half year away from Halloween. And the first of May is a bank holiday, so enjoy your day off!
Johannes Praetorius: Blockes-Berges Verrichtung, Leipzig u.a. 1668