Finnish Vappu or May Day: A short introduction

Next Saturday and Sunday Helsinki will once again be packed with people celebrating Vappu or the Finnish May Day. May 1st continues to be Labour day, and the trade unions usually organise a march or a happening at Hakaniemi square, but nowadays Vappu is most conspicuously a celebration for students and anyone wanting to let loose and take part in a carnival type public partying that is otherwise rather foreign to Finns. The hats that people wear are primarily of two types: the white student’s cap, which is a sign of passing the matriculation exam after grade 12, or a hat indicating that one is a student of a particular field, most notably the hat worn by university level engineering students, which has a tassel. Students often also wear overalls when going around in groups.

The student’s cap is a tradition going back to 1810, in its current form it has existed since 1870. The first woman to pass the matriculation exam in the Nordic countries was Maria Tschetschulin in 1870, and she was not allowed to use the cap. It took all the way up to 1897 before women were allowed to wear the same cap as men – i.e. the one you will see in abundance next Saturday. In the olden days, up to about 1950s, when only select few had passed the matriculation exam, they would make their accomplishment known by wearing the cap during the university holiday season from Vappu to the end of September. In classic Finnish movies such as the Suomisen Olli series you can see characters wondering around in the country side with the cap. About a decade ago, a young designer Paola Suhonen, who has since become a superstar with her label IVANA Helsinki, designed a modern rival for the student’s cap, the ylioppilaspipo or student beanie. Whenever Vappu happens to be cold, which is most of the time, the beanie has a point…

There are three traditional delicacies related to Vappu: sima, munkki and tippaleipä. Sima is a home-made lemonade. The home-made variants are certainly worth tasting if you have the chance, but the ready-made drinks sold in supermarkets taste like lame sodas, so nothing to get excited about. Sima is very easy to make yourself; you can find a recipe at the end of the post. Munkki is a very basic doughnut, usually seasoned with cardamom, delicious when fresh, and rather different from the Dunkin’ donut type. Tippaleipä is also a baked delicacy, I have no idea whether this recipe is any good, but the picture looks right.

There are two important happenings related to Vappu celebration that you can either join or make sure to avoid. The first important event takes place at Kauppatori (main market square) in Helsinki by the Havis Amanda fountain. Every year, a student union from one of the universities in the region has the honor of putting a student’s cap on Amanda, or ”Manta” as she is known among friends. This takes place on April 30th at 18 sharp, and is the official beginning for partying and the time to raise your first toast (though many can’t wait that long). As a result, the Esplanades are packed with balloons, streamers and people who get tipsy or completely wasted very fast.

Although Vappu is a celebration also for children, particularly in the form of balloons, masks and other party gear, the area around the Esplanades is difficult to navigate even for adults around 18 hrs, so be sure to check what it is like before you go there with lively little ones. I remember being there at age 10 or so, and our little ones were quite happy to join when they were sitting in a pram, but the years in between could be problematic. After Manta gets her cap at 18 hrs people gradually head to a restaurant or a private party but the city is full of people all through the night, and getting a taxi is difficult especially around 12 – 2 a.m. and again around 4 a.m. when the last places close.

The other important tradition is a picnic at Kaivopuisto on May 1st. A few times per decade the weather actually is perfect for a picnic, at other times it tends to be a display of Finnish sisu (persistence) and optimism in action. Students do show up even if it is raining cats and dogs; those who prefer comfort can book a Vappulounas – a lunch, which is typically a bouffet with different kinds of seasoned fish. This is a perfect opportunity to taste different types of silli (pickled herring). Often the lunch or brunch is actually called sillis because pickled herring is supposed to taste good when you have a hangover – for the newcomers though, I fear it might work the other way round. Anyhow, whether you decide to go for it at Vappu or later, make sure you do try different kinds of silli, graavilohi (rawpickled salmon), savulohi (smoked salmon) or kylmäsavulohi (cold smoked salmon) or  savusiika (smoked whitefish), different kinds of mäti (fish row), and silakka (Baltic herring  either fried or pickled). The other season for these fish dishes is Christmas. If you want to find a place for Vappu brunch, just google ”vappulounas” and you will get an abundance of alternatives. For the most popular places you will need a reservation, I fear some may already be fully booked, but since there are a lot of options, you will certainly find something even if you try your luck on the spot.

A new invention this year is a huge sauna built for 300 people on the Aalto university campus, the goal was to build the largest sauna in the world. It is open during the Vappu weekend for anyone interested in joining between 17-24 hrs. It will most likely be a very informal sauna, so check out the basics about Finnish sauna culture if you are not already familiar with it, for example here: Finns do it naked: Or, what to expect in a Finnish sauna

In sum, Vappu shows you a lot of people in a good and lighthearted mood, but the downside is that many get way too drunk. I guess Huominen on huomenna (Tomorrow is tomorrow) by JVG crystallizes the ideal party feeling people are looking for during Vappu, Madafakin darra (This motherfuckin’ hangover) by Roope Salminen suggests the common outcome. The key is choosing your timing and venues right considering your preferences, and I hope this background will help you in making the most of the spring carnival.

Easy recipe for May Day Sima

4 litres of water

350 – 400 grams of brown sugar (most recipes say 500 but I think it is too much)

1 lemon or a couple of limes, or a mixture of these, peeled and sliced, take care to remove all the bitter-tasting white peel

a tiny piece of yeast, about the size of a pea or even less


1/2 bottle of beer (lager)

10 grams of fresh ginger peeled and sliced / a few sprigs of rosemary (probably just either one of these, both may not work well)

Boil 4 litres of water and pour them over 350 – 400 grams of brown sugar and a peeled and sliced lemon (and any optional seasonings you might want to add) and make sure the sugar melts. Let it cool to body temperature, which takes several hours indoors, add the yeast, and optionally 1/2 bottle of beer, steer well. The beer with its hops gives an edge to the drink but it is optional. I’ve typically let it start brewing over night in room temperature because I’m always late in making it, and then bottled it adding a few raisins in each bottle, and left it in the fridge for a couple of days. When the raisins float on the surface, the drink is ready. Unless you add way too much yeast, this drink is suitable for children as well.