Walpurgisnacht: All about the Night of the Witches in Switzerland
Walpurgisnacht, or the Night of the Witches, is a festival on April 30 that marks the transition of the seasons and the arrival of warmer weather with its own spooky twist. The mythical holiday packed with bonfires, pot banging, and honey wine is celebrated throughout northern and central Europe, including in parts of Switzerland.
The history of Walpurgis Night
Like many modern-day celebrations, Walpurgisnacht is linked to an old pagan custom. Like its cousin Halloween (which is celebrated exactly six months later, on October 31), Walpurgisnacht has its roots in a pagan celebration that marked the changing of the seasons, a time when the veil between the spirit world and ours was believed to be at its thinnest, leading people to take action in order to honour the dead and protect themselves from ill-meaning apparitions.
Gradually over time, however, this pagan celebration of seasonality became connected to the legend of an English nun called Walpurga. Saint Walpurga was a Christian missionary who came to Germany in the late eighth century and became an abbess at the Heidenheim monastery.
Among other things, Walpurga was known for healing and repelling the effects of witchcraft. After she became a saint, many Christians would pray to God via Walpurga, asking for protection from witchcraft.
Walpurga is associated with May 1 because she was supposedly canonised on that date in the 9th century - hence, as the date April 30 became associated with trying to protect oneself from witchcraft, it became known as "Walpurga's Night" or Walpurgisnacht.
The Witch Hunts
This interesting transition began in the medieval period when a number of factors collided to spark mass hysteria across Western Europe regarding witches and witchcraft.
Up until this point, various "pagan" rituals like herbalism had continued to be practised and coexisted relatively peacefully with other Christian beliefs. In the 16th century, however, a sudden change of the tide found these customs branded as "superstitious" and "evil." In many cases, the people practising them were tried and burned to death in some of the most gruesome witch hunts in history.
One widely-held belief was that witches would gather on the peak of Mount Brocken in the Harz Mountains of Germany to meet with Satan and plot evil doings for the coming year. This was supposed to take place on April 30. Fearful villagers would therefore come together on this date to try to keep away "evil spirits" with loud noises, bonfires and straw men.
Walpurgis Night as a folk belief
As superstitious beliefs faded away with the birth of the Enlightenment, these practices became less popular. Walpurgisnacht might have disappeared completely were it not for the rise of Romanticism, which prompted a revival in interest in ancient customs and folk beliefs.
The so-called Night of the Witches proved a popular motif in literature, art and poetry across Europe. Similarly to modern-day Halloween celebrations, people began to actually celebrate Walpurgis Night as a titillating evening of spooky escapades, with fireworks, bonfires, folk songs and dancing.
This spirit of the celebration has carried over into the present day, with people across northern Europe celebrating Walpurgisnacht as a second Halloween, dressing up, playing pranks, and making quite a bit of noise.
In Switzerland, the festival is celebrated in some small pockets of the country, especially in Solothurn, Chur and some communities along the border with Germany.
Nowadays, the Night of the Witches is celebrated pretty much the same way across Europe, including in Switzerland. Here are some Walpurgisnacht rituals you might come across:
Being loud with friends
Even though Walpurgisnacht is a somewhat scary festival, the general spirit is still one of fun and noise. People keep up the old tradition of making noise to keep spirits away, and jovial crowds of revellers join together to play loud folk music and dance together. Another more mischievous tradition is to pull pranks on other people.
Although the tone might be one of fun and frivolity, it's still important to remember the original purpose of the festival - warding off any evil or phantom spirits that may be lurking. Many people, therefore, leave out Ankenschnitt, which is buttered bread drizzled with honey, as an offering to evil, invisible hellhounds. Offering Ankenschnitt will keep the devil dogs happy and ensure you a year of good health, good harvests, and good weather.
Dressing up as witches
As it is called the Night of the Witches, it is common to see people dressed up as witches for the festival. Unsettling stories about witches will also be shared along with a witch’s dance for the Sabbath. All around northern and central Europe, people can be found dressed up as witches and demons, with the most gathering in the Harz Mountains in Germany.
Drinking alcoholic beverages, especially with friends, is a common tradition for Walpurgisnacht. The drink that is mostly consumed for the festival is mead, which is a type of honey wine. May wine, an aromatic, herby wine, is also consumed, particularly in central Europe. However, depending on the region, almost all types of alcoholic beverages are indulged in.
Bonfires (Hexenfeuer) and fireworks
Bonfires are the most essential part of the festival. All around central and northern Europe, bonfires and fireworks are lit on the highest hills to frighten off the evil spirits of the unseen world. The bonfires are usually very large and people gather around drinking alcoholic beverages, singing and dancing.
Walpurgisnacht is the time to get the bonfires ready and prepare the mead to have the best eerie and iconic night with your friends. Enjoy!