The Springtime Halloween of Germany – 30th April is the Eve of St. Walpurgis or as it is known traditionally in Germany Walpurgisnacht. ‘Walpurgis Night is when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad – when the graves were opened and the dead come forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel.’ So who is St. Walpurgis? And why has this springtime equivalent to Halloween been honoured in this saint’s name?
St. Walpurgis or St. Walburga as she is often known, was an eighth century English nun. Born in Devonshire around 710 ce, she was the only daughter of a Saxon chief, King Richard and of Winna (sister of St. Boniface, Apostle of Germany). She also had two brothers, Winibald and Willibald. In 721 ce, her father and two brothers travelled on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, while Walburga was entrusted to the Abbess of the Convent of St. Cuthberga now the site of the present day Minster at Wimborne, Dorset, England. Where she spent twenty-seven years intensive training and study.
During her schooling at St. Cuthberga, her uncle and Boniface (later martyred in Germany) and her two brothers were sent as missionaries to Germany to convert the heathen races of Europe. As Boniface began to establish churches, he appealed to the Abbess Tetta of the convent of St. Cuthberga to send him some nuns to assist in his work. The Abbess selected a party of ten to embark on a voyage to join him, two of whom were Walburga and Boniface’s cousin Lioba.
As they sailed across the channel a terrible and violent tempest arose. In an act of faith Walburga knelt upon the deck of the ship and prayed, where upon the storm seized and became calm once again. When the ship arrived in Germany the sailors proclaimed the miracle they had witnessed at sea, that were ever she went, she was received with joy and veneration.
On eventually reaching Mainz, she was warmly welcomed by her uncle and brother Willibald. Her two brothers had already established a double monastery for both men and women in Heidenheim. After living for some time in Bischofsheim, Walburga was appointed Abbess to support her brother Winibald at Heidenheim, who already served as first Abbot. When her brother Winibald died, the Bishop of Eichstadt once again appointed her as Abbess of the whole monastery.
The Legends of her life tells of her gentleness, humility and charity, as well as her power to heal the sick through prayer. After a long time of devoted service Walburga died in 777AD and was laid to rest beside her brother Winibald. Her surviving brother Willibald continued her work until his death in 786AD.
When the devotion to Walburga declined, the monastery and church at Heidenheim soon began to decay, and fall into ruin. It wasn’t until around 870AD, that the Bishop of Eichstadt, Otkar, decided to restore the Monastery to its former glory.
One night during the renovation, an apparition of Walburga appeared to the Bishop reproaching and threatening him, as the workmen had already discovered her tomb and desecrated it. This encounter led to prompt action the next day on the 21st September 870AD, in the removal of her remains to be taken to Eichstadt and placed in the church of Holy Cross, now called St. Walburga.
Twenty-three years later, the shrine of St. Walburga was opened by Otkar’s successor the Bishop Erchanbold, to remove some portions of the remains to give as relics to Liubula, Abbess of Monheim. It was at this point that the Bishop first discovered that the body of the saint was immersed in a oily substance, which from that day forth has continued to flow from the stone slab and surrounding metal plate on which the relics of the saint rest. The fluid or `Walburgis oleum’ is collected in a silver cup, placed beneath the slab to catch the fluid, so the nuns of St Walburga can distribute it all over the world to those who wish to benefit from St Walburga’s influence of healing.
Due to its divine proprieties many portions of her relics have been taken to other churches and monasteries in other parts of Europe. This has resulted in a diversity of feasts in honour of the saint. In the Roman Martyrology her feast day is commemorated on the 1st May, the day in which she is believed to been declared a saint by the Pope in the 9th Century.
As her feast day also coincided with a much older pagan festival of Beltane when the Celts marked the beginning of summer. The eve of Beltane 30th April – 1st May became also known as Walpurgisnacht, perhaps originally in an attempt to Christianise the festival. Like Halloween, it was also the night in which spirits wandered and witches favoured, as it was an auspicious time for holding their midnight sabbats and for conjuring spells. The most famous of all sabbats held on Walpurgisnacht was supposed to take place on the summit of the Brocken in the Harz Mountains of Germany as mentioned in Goethe’s ‘Faust’.
On Walpurgisnacht it was customary for local folk to ring the bells of the church at night, cutting sprigs of blossom from the May bush (Hawthorn) and hung outside or inside the house as deterrent of witchcraft. The burning of Need-Fires and life size straw effigies of men or women which were made prior to burning and cursed with ill-health and ill-luck of the old year. Creating lots of noise by banging on drums, wood or firing of shotguns were all considered effective ways of ridding the area of witchcraft, evil spirits and dark forces. The very name St. Walburga (or Walpurgis, Waltpurde, Gauburge, Vaubourg, Falbourg, as known in other parts of Europe) and her image were also used as protective charms against witchcraft, plague, famine and storms.
Later the church moved St. Walburga’s feast day to the 25th February in an attempt by the authorities to banish the Walpurgisnacht witches revelry. However, in Germany and other parts of Europe the tradition of Walpurgisnacht still continues to this day but taken less seriously by local people and especially children as a harmless celebration and a excuse to dress up as witches, ghosts and goblins and play pranks on unsuspecting victims after dark similar to Halloween’s Trick or Treat.