In an excerpt from Lonely Planet’s A Year of Festivals we take a walk on the witchy side at Germany's wonderfully-named Walpurgisnacht, as well as a couple of equally pagan celebrations in the Czech Republic and Sweden.
Location: Brocken, Harz Mountains, Germany
Date: 30 April
Level of participation: 4 – climb a mountain to enjoy the witching hour
What better way to see out April than on a mountain top in the company of witches and warlocks. According to local mythology, said witches and warlocks gather on Walpurgisnacht (which takes its name from Saint Walburga, whose feast day is 1 May) at locations throughout the Harz Mountains before flying off to 1142m Brocken on broomsticks or goats. There they recount the year’s evil deeds and top off the stories with a bacchanalian frenzy, said to represent copulation with the devil.
Frightened peasants used to hang crosses and herbs on stable doors to protect their livestock; ringing church bells or cracking whips were other ways to prevent stray witches from dropping by. Today, however, people come to be with the witches, not to escape them.
One of the best places to celebrate Walpurgisnacht is the town of Thale, where not-so-pagan hordes of 35,000 or more arrive for colourful variety events and the Walpurgishalle museum tells you all you need to know about sacrifices, rituals and local myths. People dress as witches and toss away all reserve as they dance around fires. Wherever you are, expect to see the dawn in with some very strange characters! If it wasn’t enough that one mountain should claim to be haunted, there are other such Walpurgisnacht events elsewhere in Europe.
In the Czech Republic the local variation is Carodejnice (Burning of the Witches), which sees huge bonfires lit all over the country (including on Petřín hill in Prague) and an effigy of a witch thrown onto the pyres. Old brooms are also burnt and there’s partying through the night.
Sweden, too, has a few witches in the broom closet. Here, the celebration is known as the Feast of Valborg and is nowadays treated more as a spring welcome than a time of witches, being marked with bonfires and choral singing across the country. The largest celebration is in Stockholm’s Skansen open-air museum, where a festive concert runs from mid-afternoon to around midnight. In Gothenburg, students from the Chalmers University have for the last century conducted the Cortège parade, with floats showing mock scenes from major events over the past year. More than 200,000 people line the streets to view the parade.
Essentials: In the Harz Mountains, the town of Schierke is the best starting point for Walpurgisnacht treks to the Brocken. The Cortège parade in Gothenburg is alcohol free.
Local attractions: In Thale, the wooden museum Walpurgishalle has exhibitions and paintings on all matters heathen (the interpretations are in German only), including the Opferstein, a stone once used in Germanic sacrificial rituals. In Gothenburg, head to Liseberg, one of the world’s largest amusement parks, with 35 stomach-churning rides.
See more festivals in April here.
This article was first published in December 2010 and was refreshed in March 2013.