In many parts of Central and Northern Europe, people will spend today and tonight, April 30, observing the holiday Walpurgisnacht. This mouthful of a word is the name of an ancient festival celebrating spring. Tomorrow is May first or May Day. May Day also is an ancient festival celebrating spring.
It is probably no coincidence that April 30 and Walpurgisnacht are exactly six months apart from another holiday with historical roots in agriculture, Halloween, originally an ancient festival celebrating the harvest. (Today also is the half-birthday of my stepdaughter Rachel, born on Oct. 31. However, she is neither ancient nor associated with an agricultural festival, so I guess this parenthesis is not relevant.)
The name derives from the eighth century missionary St. Walburga, but for most of the countries and cultures that are observing Walpurgisnacht the holiday is celebrated in a more secular fashion as the last day of winter. Some places will find university students ceremonially donning student caps to observe the ending of exams. Some places will have raft races on their rivers while others will use the occasion to play harmless pranks. All of the festivals will involve eating and drinking, dancing and singing. All of the celebrations will include huge bonfires.
Although we have our own ways of observing the coming of spring, Walpurgisnacht is not a red letter day on the calendar for people here in the United States. I have been wondering, though, if the urge to welcome spring and cheer the end of winter is so ancient, so primal that it might be somehow part of the natural order of things, a part of the DNA of life itself. I have been speculating that even animals might have some sort of Walpurgisnacht celebrations going on. Especially squirrels.
Now, even in the cold dark of winter the brown squirrels around my house are anything but calm. Lately, though, I have noticed a sort of ecstatic frenzy in their activity. They are continually scrambling up the wooden post to the hanging suet cage and they perform Olympic-style acrobatics as they leap to the various trays and feeders we have around the yard. And if dancing is an integral part of this universal spring celebratory urge, their twists and gyrations as they scamper up and down trees chasing each other is proof enough for me that they are in Walpurgisnacht party mode.
I am a live-and-let-live type of guy especially when it comes to universal primal urges, so I try to give the squirrels some space to revel in their spring joy. This is not to say I don’t also give my dog Sydney a chance to revel in his spring joy by chasing squirrels away from the bird feeders. As much as I understand this animal need to celebrate spring and new growth, I feel as a human — we invented limits and restrictions, after all — I have to draw the line somewhere. That line for squirrels is around my strawberry plants.
Quick backstory: Strawberry plants don’t produce fruit much the first year, so I was anticipating a bountiful harvest last year, the second season of my planting. Turns out I ate maybe two or three strawberries total for the year. Why? Squirrels. This could not stand. After all, we humans also invented property rights. Already this spring little white blossoms are appearing on the vines. That’s why last week my brother and I built a chicken wire-and-wood frame to cover my strawberry plants from marauding squirrels. I should know in a few weeks if it works.
May you all, humans and animals alike, have a joyous Walpurgisnacht. May your bonfire be big and may you enjoy the end of winter. May you dance and sing, eat and drink and celebrate spring until you are filled. Just stay away from my strawberries.
Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.