May first. Actually, it begins in the last day of April. Streets of Helsinki fill with people wearing white sailor caps, but these are not sailors. These are simply people who have graduated from high school at some point in the past. Literally at any point in the history. This means that both young students as well as old silver haired ladies sport the same white caps.
May Day, called Vappu in Finnish, is as cheerful a celebration as it gets in Finland. It is almost like a carnival. It is the festival of the working class, students and families. It is the time to march along the road chanting working class chants, to blow soap bubbles, dress up fancy, drink (more or less) alcoholic beverages, go for a picnic… and to put on the white cap.
This hat thing is a rather odd one. There is a superstition that if you try the student cap on before you know that you are going to graduate, you’ll be misfortunate. Once you have graduated, you can wear it on May Day and at academic events. Util the 50’s graduates used to wear the caps through the whole summer, but nowadays only people with the student caps during the summer are the students from the technical university. They have their own quirks that are a whole different story.
The dirtier the cap is, the more fun the wearer has had in the past. And the students tend to celebrate Vappu very enthusiastically.
This year was the first year I got to put my student cap on since graduating. I had spent all the past years abroad and missed the celebrations. I am no longer a student so partying hard wasn’t part of my Vappu this year either. Hence my cap is still sparkling white.
On the 31st of April, at 6pm. The students in Helsinki place a special cap on a statue “Manta” at the market square. There is absolutely no point at it, but it is an event not to be missed if you are in Helsinki on that day. This year the police estimated there were tens of thousands of people gathered to watch the ceremony – this is a lot for Finland. Other cities have slightly different traditions and hat etiquettes.
The actual public holiday is on the 1st of May and this is when people participate in the marches and go out for a picnic no matter the weather. I joined my brother and his student and ex-student friends at the Kaivopuisto Park. I spent a good few hours there eating potato salad, drinking some sima and shivering at 10 degree celcius weather. Once we got too cold, we continued the day by going to sauna to warm up.
A very good way to celebrate my student cat’s first Vappu.