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11031461061?profile=RESIZE_584xWalpurgisnacht or Hexennacht is celebrated from the eve of April 30th to May 1st. This is a traditional Germanic festival associated with witches. “Hexe” is the German word for “witch”, and “nacht” is the German word for “night”. So, the name translated to “witches night”. It’s more common name, Walpurgisnacht, is associated with the Christian feast of Saint Walpurga. This is a night that has striking similarities to the modern Halloween. On the Wheel of the Year, it falls exactly opposite of Samhain, making it the perfect time to feel the thinning of the veil and celebrate traditions of this time. In this essay, I will be covering both traditions.

It is common knowledge that the early European peoples celebrated the coming of spring. It meant the long winter was over, and abundance and warm weather were soon coming. In German folklore, it is said that witches and warlocks also welcomed the coming of spring by flying around Germany on broomsticks. On the eve of April 30th, they met on the highest peak in the Harz Mountain where bonfires would be lit and a ceremony took place to welcome in the spring. This peak is called Blocksberg Mountain, and has long been associated with witches in Germany. It is more than likely that these “witches” were simply pagans looking for a secluded place to practice their religion in peace, away from the prying eyes of the people and the church.

Over time, these traditions shifted. What once was a ritual to welcome spring, became a ritual to chase away evil spirits. You see, the villagers were afraid of the witches up in the mountains. They believed that witches and evil spirits travelled through the land on this night with ill intent. This is the parallel to the thinning of the veil at Beltane, exactly 6 months away from Samhain when the veil between worlds is the thinnest. In order to chase away these witches and bad spirits, the men of the village would make as much noise as they could to scare them away. This involved shooting shotguns, banging pots and pans together, and any other number of noisy activities. They also lit bonfires to light up the night, and discourage spirits who were sensitive to light from entering their village. Sprigs of foliage were blessed and hung above doorways to block the evil spirits from entering, and traditional bread and honey was left at the edges of town as offerings to the hellhounds.

So why was April 30th such an important night? Well, Pagan and Christian customs seem to have been tangled together. In medieval times, April 30th was an important half-way point that marked exactly 6 months until All Saint’s Day, which is the Christianized version of the pagan sabbat Samhain. This was an extremely important date for pagans, and was called the festival of Beltane. This was not to last, and the Christian church imposed a new holiday over Beltane, which was supposed to help the pagans convert to Christianity. Instead of the ancient Beltane, they honored Saint Walpurga, and called in Walpurgisnacht.

So who was Saint Walpurga, and why was she so important? She was born in Devonshire, England in 770AD. When she was young, she was sent to Germany as a missionary, and quickly became the abbess of the convent in Heidenheim. During her time here, she baptized many pagans into the Christian church. After her death, it is said that a healing oil began seeping between the stones of her tomb. This was the miracle that transformed her into a saint, and her body was subsequently split into many pieces and sent throughout Europe as relics. Because she died on May 1st, this is the day that became her holy day, and the eve of May 1st is when her feast was celebrated. She is known as the patron saint of coughs, sailors, hydrophobia, and storms. Many Christians in the Middle Ages also prayed to her to shield them against witchcraft, which was especially associated with her feast and the traditions of the day.

It is interesting to look at the similarities between Saint Walpurga and pagan traditions as well. Saint Walpurga’s symbols are grain, dogs, and the spindle. These same symbols are found in pagan tradition. Grain is a traditional symbol of the harvest, dogs are considered traditional familiars for Germanic Goddesses, and the spindle is associated with Frau Holda from the famous fairy tale. This made it easy for pagans unwilling to convert to say they were honoring Saint Walpurga, when instead they were honoring the old Germanic Gods. Though the Christian Feast of Saint Walpurga had different beliefs than the pagan traditions, there were other striking similarities. For one, the tradition of hanging sprigs of foliage over doorways was observed by Christians as well as pagans. Though some traditions remained the same, most of the Christian ones were different. People often made pilgrimages to her tomb in Eichstätt, where they would purchase vials of Saint Walpurga’s oil.

Now let’s talk about some of the customs of Walpurgisnacht. These traditions are very similar to those of Beltane. After the long, cold winter, it is only natural that the coming of spring should be celebrated. This was especially important to early Germanic peoples who lived in a cold place in the world, where winter carried with it a serious risk of death. To welcome back the warmer part of the year, they built great bonfires, and partook in a lot of song and dance reminiscent of that around the maypole for May Day. There are however, a few traditions not reflected in those of Beltane. These are the ones I find to be the most interesting! Remember when I said that this was also considered a witches night? Well, it was tradition to ride broomsticks between balefires or jump over them. It was also a time to burn old brooms in the fire. This is possibly the origin of the myth that witches fly on broomsticks. Anything old or broken was also burned in these fires, symbolically and physically cleaning the old energy from the house. Straw likenesses were created and adorned with illness and other bad things and symbolically burned in the fires as well, ridding the person of these bad things in their lives.

Though these were the traditional Walpurgisnacht traditions, they have changed once again with the times, and modern celebrations look different than they once did. The major difference between this celebration and the Christian celebration is that it is secular, and no longer associated with the Catholic Saint Walpurga. The fear of witches has been largely dispersed in modern times. More and more people are embracing witchcraft either through practice, media, or any number of different ways. With this new view, Germany’s celebration of Walpurgisnacht has turned into a sort of second Halloween in Germany. People come to the Harz Mountains dressed as witches, warlocks, or other magick wielders. Here, they dance and celebrate alongside others and large bonfires. The largest celebration is held in the Hexentanzplatz, which is a plateau near the town of Thale. Though this is the largest celebration, Walpurgisnacht is celebrated across Saxony.

Southern Germany sees Walpurgisnacht a little differently. Here it is seen as a night of pranks, kind of like April Fool’s Day in America. In Finland, Walpurgisnacht is called Vappu, and is one of the country’s most important holidays. It was originally celebrated here only by the upper class, but quickly trickled down and became especially popular with university students. In Berlin, Walpurgisnacht is a traditional night to start riots and protests, as it is closely associated with the German Labor Day. These protests usually begin in the Mauerpark where the remains of the Berlin Wall sit on display as a reminder. This is a new association with Walpurgisnacht, but an important cultural association to the German people.

Unfortunately, the negative connotations of Walpurgisnacht are still present in some cases. In the Czech Republic, this night is known as “Paleni Carodejnic”, which translated to “Burning of the Witches”. Though there is no actual burning of witches, the negative connotation remains. It is tradition here to build bonfires as well and burn images of witches throughout the night.

Walpurgisnacht appears many times in famous literature. The first instance introduced the myth of the witches, and was called “The Blocksberg Performance” by Johannes Präetorius. After this first introduction into mainstream entertainment, Walpurgisnacht found its way into other literature and music. The most well known reference is Goethe’s play “Faust”. Walpurgisnacht is the name of a scene in part one of Faust and part two. Other famous examples of Walpurgisnacht in literature include “The Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” by Edward Albee, and “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker.

Obviously, there are many traditions associated with Walpurgisnacht. It is especially pertinent to those of us who practice witchcraft due to the rich history of pagan and witch traditions on this night. This is just another way to further celebrate Beltane and the welcoming of spring. Modern witches can use this night to feel more witchy and to connect to their pagan and witch ancestors.

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