"Have a great Vappu and welcome on board again," says Pekka Lehtinen, the co-pilot of AY 782 flight from Rome to Helsinki, as we begin our descent. The comment is received with laughter and cheerful murmur in the cabin. An older gentleman behind me responds by saying " kippis vittu," which roughly translates to "cheers fuck." Enough to make me homesick.
It's Sunday and the day before Vappu, one of the biggest holidays in Finland. Tomorrow, people will be off from work, which explains the large quantity of Champagne and beer being consumed on the flight. The Italian couple sitting next to me are comically unaware of the situation they are about to enter.
With Vappu you could mention historical references to Workers' Day, May Day, Walpurgisnacht and whatnot. But there is no denying that Vappu has evolved throughout the years into a unique holiday; a Nordic carnival, if you will.
Unlike most Finnish holidays, Vappu is an unusually joyful and social celebration. During the Midsummer festivities Finns retreat to their lakeside cabins and countryside cottages where they can enjoy the day in peaceful surroundings. On Vappu, this phenomenon is reversed. People fill the streets, parks, and public toilets.
Before the festivities start on the eve of Vappu, the Finnish alcohol monopoly Alko sees a major spike in sales. More than 1.4 million Finns visit Alko shops on the week leading up to May 1.
"Some years certain shops have had to close doors because it got too crowded," says Taina Vilkuna, a Master of Wine and the product communications manager at Alko.
When one-fourth of the population of an entire country is planning to get their drink on, simultaneously, during a specific 24-hour time window—well, let's just say stuff happens.
The consumption of sparkling wine, in particular, goes through the roof. I would go out on a limb and say that during Vappu Finland is one of the biggest hotspots for sparkling wine in the world.
Alko's sparkling wine sales climb by a whopping 510 percent because of Vappu. "Bubbles are without a doubt the drink-of-choice on Vappu," Taina adds. "Champagne sales alone go up by 291 percent. I believe Prosecco will be a popular choice this year because of its approachable flavour profile and modest price tag."
But this being Finland, there has to be a delightfully quirky yet awkward tradition attached. This is where sima, a sweet and slightly fizzy drink, comes into the picture. This home-brewed, quick-fermented, low-alcohol drink is a poor cousin of mead from the times when vikings roamed the Nordic countries. Nowadays it is consumed only during Vappu, but it remains extremely popular. Of course, you can find sima in stores as well, but most people prefer to brew their own at home.
"I started making my own sima after I moved out from my parents' house," says Marjut Hyytiäinen, HR Business Partner and a mother of two. "I ferment my sima with some orange peel, which goes really well with the traditional lemon. My daughter isn't a fan but my boy can't get enough of it."
I know what you are thinking. Fermentation? Alcohol? Kids? WTF? No need to worry, though. Most home-made sima probably falls nicely between 0 and 1 percent ABV—"probably" being the operative word. It is hard to say for sure.
On the eve of Vappu at 6 PM, the nude female statue Havis Amanda in Helsinki city center receives a white cap from a bunch of students dangling from a crane. This year an estimated 35,000 people have gathered around the statue to observe the kick-off.
Due to the recent act of terrorism in Stockholm the police presence this year is robust. All roads leading to the Market Square and Esplanadi park are cut off with trucks and police vehicles.
But that doesn't seem to bother the partygoers. When the clock finally struck 6, the public goes crazy. Hundreds of bottle corks fly across the air in perfect sync with Darude's "Sandstorm," beautifully mingling with the sleet and hail that's pouring down on us—a grand and utterly patriotic sight that could have very well been a scene from the Finnish national epic Kalevala.
Like most Finnish festivities, the success of Vappu depends on the weather. On Vappu eve it was raining literally everything except cats and dogs. But luckily the weather turned and May 1 began with a cloudless sky.
On the morning of May 1, people start a mass migration to Kaivopuisto, a large park in Helsinki near the sea. The park is filled with thousands of people curing a hangover or potentially getting one. But it's not just all about the sauce. Elaborate picnics are set up with good food in abundance.
Students with colourful coveralls swarm the park, an ocean of white caps as far as the eye can see. Families and friends gather with enough balloons and picnic baskets to tilt Earth on its axis.
But if one group of people could own Vappu it would be the engineering students, known as teekkarit. This race of super nerds are famous for their unnatural party stamina and witty Vappu humour. Their ability to celebrate Vappu for weeks with proper gusto is nothing but awe-inspiring. Even the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö, took time to give a Vappu speech at their campus in Otaniemi.
Finns have a bad reputation for being too shy and reserved. To some extent that is true. We might not go through life shaking our butts as well as the Brazilians and our joie de vivre leaves a lot to be desired. But on Vappu, the festival of spring, the Finns turn their back on winter and welcome the sun. They dress up and go out. They laugh, dance, and sing in a way that most think Finns otherwise think is impossible—all because it's Vappu.