On the streets of Finland's vibrant capital Helsinki, there's less purpose in the stride of your average Finn. They'll leisurely browse the food and knick-knack stalls of Kauppatori (market square) or amble aimlessly amidst the newly uncovered greenery of the Kasvitieteellinen Puutarha (botanic gardens). Ice sheets that for months proceeding have covered the inlets of the Baltic Sea meld back to form part of its watery mass as daylight finally begins winning its ongoing battle with darkness.
The end of April marks a very special time on the Finnish calendar; the beginning of Spring. Ask just about any Finn you care to meet what that means to them and they'll give you a one-word answer, Vappu! Vappu is the closest thing you'll find to Carnival in this part of the world, an unrivalled, two-day Finnish celebration held the length and breadth of the country. It brings out the Finns in droves. To many in the know, it's Europe's best kept party secret.
Helsinki's celebration of Vappu begins officially at 6 p.m. on April 30th as tens of thousands of revellers file onto Helsinki's most grandiose street, Esplanadi to witness the placing of the ylioppilaslakki (a cap presented to Finns upon matriculation) on the statue (Havis Amanda, an Art Nouveau nude). The honour of washing her down and then placing the cap on her head circulates annually between Helsinki's Universities. Each year more elaborate plays - usually involving cranes and dangling students in various stages of intoxication - are engineered to outdo the previous year's performance.
With Havis Amanda's cap firmly in place, corks from thousands of bottles of sparkling wine fly skyward and a sea of ylioppilaslakkeja (caps) are waved enthusiastically in the air. Streamers are unfurled and balloons of all shapes and sizes float overhead. You couldn't escape the heaving mass if you wanted. Vappu has begun.
Students, brightly dressed in sponsor-covered overalls (each University faculty or department has their own colour scheme) gather in unsteady gaggles around the city, bottles of sparkling wine in hand, wrapped in streamers and blasting on whistles. Families enjoy the festivities in the parks and squares, sharing sima, (a lemon and sugar based yeast drink) tippaleipä (a sugar-dusted, deep fried sweet dough) and maybe a little sparkling wine of their own. And when the sun goes down on April 30th, Vappu kicks on until the wee morning hours at the hundreds of Vappu house parties and the myriad of fine bars, clubs and restaurants that Helsinki has on offer.
May 1st sees Helsinki's celebrations take a different turn with a slightly more sophisticated tone - for some at least. The day's celebrations are centered around Kaivopuisto - a rambling park close to Helsinki's embassy district - where tens of thousands of merrymakers turn it on for the city's biggest picnic. Traditionally a herring breakfast is held where typical food and drink includes silli (herring), sima, munkki (jam-filled donuts), tippaleipä and nakki (small frankfurts). For many - especially the student population - the picnic is a continuation of yesterday's celebrations as one day staggers into the next. For others, still wiping sleep from their eyes, it's a more sedate occasion and the chance to spend quality outdoor time with family and friends.
For some at Kaivopuisto, Vappu picnic is a black tie affair. White-gloved waiters serve the finest champagne in crystal flutes whilst canapés are nibbled al fresco. Violinists, highly polished silverware and the finest china add to the ambiance. One thing's for certain, if the day begins relatively sedately it certainly gathers momentum. By the shank of the afternoon Kaivopuisto is swinging and swaying in a sea of multi-coloured overalls.
For many, the end of the picnic marks the end of Vappu and the beginning of the long-awaited out-of-doors months when Finns take every possible aspect of their lives outside. Depending on the day of the week and the commitments faced on May 2nd, hardier souls again take the party back to Helsinki's plethora of drinking holes.
The often-reserved Finns come out of their shell at Vappu and English is never a problem - most locals speak an embarrassing array of languages. If the weather's on song, Helsinki provides the perfect backdrop to one of Europe's largest national celebrations. If the snow's still falling don't panic, the Finns are a hardy bunch and a little white stuff isn't going to stop them partying like mad. So if you like your celebrations loud and as part of a crowd, then Vappu may be just the fest for you. Kippis!