Walpurgis: English-German Vocabulary

GERMAN VOCABULARY • Walpurgis Night | Walpurgisnacht | Maypoles

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An Annotated English-German Glossary of Walpurgisnacht and May Day Terms
In this annotated English-German glossary, you’ll find vocabulary and facts related to Walpurgis Night, May Day, the Maypole (Maibaum) and other May customs in German-speaking Europe. Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht) is a traditional spring festival on the eve of May 1 (May Day). This custom, celebrated with dancing and bonfires, is one of many May traditions observed in Germany and some other parts of Central and Northern Europe. Walpurgis Night is named for the Anglo-Saxon missionary St. Walburga (ca. 710–779) and takes place exactly six months before Halloween.

Walpurgis | Spring | Frühling | der erste Mai | May Day

Thingstätte Heidelberg Walpurgisnacht

Walpurgis Night festivities at the Thingstätte in Heidelberg, Germany.
PHOTO: Andreas Fink – de.wikipedia (Wikimedia Commons)

adj. (adjective), adv. (adverb), lit. (literary), n. (noun), pl. (plural), sl. (slang), v. (verb)

Glossary Copyright © 2002-2017 Hyde Flippo


abbess | die Äbtissin (-nen)
»» An abbess is the head of an abbey of nuns. See St. Walburga (below).

Adrian II, Pope | Papst Hadrian II. (792–872, Hadrian der Zweite)
»» Adrian is said to be the pope who canonized St. Walburga on May 1. The year is uncertain, but most historians set the date in 870. (She may not have been canonized by Adrian at all, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.) Adrian was a member of the noble Roman Colonna dynasty. He was pope for exactly five years, from December 867 to December 872. Before he became pope, Adrian had been married and had a daughter. A year after he became pope, Adrian’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and assassinated.


Beltane/Beltaine | das Beltane-Fest
»» The Irish and Scots celebrate the Gaelic/Celtic pagan festival of Beltane on the same date as Walpurgis Night (April 30). Also featuring bonfires, Beltane is a celebration of the end of winter and the welcoming of spring and summer. A revived Beltane Fire Festival has been held annually since 1988 during the night of April 30 on Calton Hill in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Berlin | Berlin
»» Each year there are over a dozen scheduled Walpurgisnacht events in the German capital with bonfires and entertainment at sites that include the Zitadelle Spandau, Museumspark Rüdersdorf, the Wall Park (Mauerpark), the Weissensee beach, the Wedding district and on the Pfingstberg hill in nearby Potsdam. Berlin is also known for its annual May Day riots in the district of Kreuzberg. Also see “Kreuzberg” below.

Blocksberg | der Blocksberg (der Brocken)
»» This mountain in the Harz region of Germany is famous as the site of a “witches’ festival” on Walpurgis Night. See more under “Brocken” below.

bonfire | das Feuer (-) | HexenfeuerMaifeuerWalpurgisfeuer
»» Walpurgis Night festivities usually include a large bonfire known as a Hexenfeuer (witches’ fire), Maifeuer (May fire), or Walpurgisfeuer in German.

Boniface, Saint | der heilige Bonifatius (Bonifacius, Winfrid/Wynfryth, ca. 680-754)
»» St. Boniface (Ger., Bonifatius) was born in Wessex (today’s Devonshire, England) around 680. One of Walburga’s brothers, Willibald, wrote a biography of Boniface (Latin: Bonifacius). Boniface was also Walburga’s and Willibald’s uncle. Boniface made Willibald a bishop when he reorganized the Catholic Church in Bavaria. Another brother, Winibald, asked Walburga to help run his monastery/convent in Heidenheim. Boniface is also known as the Apostle of the Germans because of his missionary work in the Frankish Empire. He is the patron saint of Germany.

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Brocken | der Brocken (1,141 m; 3,743 ft) The Brocken is the highest of the Harz Mountains in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt. In some literature related to Walpurgis Night, the Brocken is referred to as the “Blocksberg” (see above). Several rock formations on the Brocken have names related to witches (Hexenaltar, witches’ altar) and the devil (Teufelskanzel, devil’s pulpit). Today the Brocken is best known as a popular site for hikers and two ultra-marathons. See the photo below.

Luftbild Brocken

An aerial view of the Brocken summit (die Brockenkuppe) in the Harz Mountains. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Brocken witch | Brockenhexe
»» Witches (Hexen) celebrating atop the Brocken have long been a key aspect in legend and the public imagination. A poem written in 1300 mentions spirits who meet at the “Brochelsberge” (Blocksberg/Brocken), but there is no mention of witches. In the 16th century, there were several more works that did specifically mention witches. Witch trials in this period also referred to the Brocken and Walpurgis Night. In 1756, Johann Friedrich Löwen published Die Walpurgis Nacht. Ein Gedicht in drey Gesängen, one of the first literary works to popularize the “witches’ sabbath” and Walpurgis Night, 52 years before Goethe again did so in Faust (1808). In the 1880s, the first picture postcards featuring the image of a Brocken witch were published.


canonization | die Heiligsprechung
canonize v. | heiligsprechen
»» With his canonization of the abbess Walburga on a May 1, Adrian II gave rise to the Walpurgis Night custom, still celebrated today in Germany on the eve of Walburga’s feast day. (Deutsch: Hadrian II. gab durch die Heiligsprechung der Äbtissin Walburga an einem 1. Mai Anlass für den heute in Deutschland noch verbreiteten Brauch der Walpurgisnacht, die in der dem Patronatsfest Walburgas vorausgehenden Nacht gefeiert wird.)

Celts, Celtic | die Kelten, keltisch (See “Beltane”)
»» Many of Europe’s customs and traditions, including Beltane, go back to the Celts.


Dance into May | der Tanz in den Mai
»» The modern form of Walpurgis Night connected to May 1. Also known as Maitanz (May dance).


Goethe | Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
»» Goethe was one of Germany’s greatest literary giants. The term Walpurgisnacht was popularized by Goethe’s famous poetic drama Faust – Teil I (1808). Below is an excerpt translated into English rhyming verse by Anna Swanwick in 1850.

Now to the Brocken the witches hie,
The stubble is yellow, the corn is green;
Thither the gathering legions fly,
And sitting aloft is Sir Urian seen:
O’er stick and o’er stone they go whirling along,
Witches and he-goats, a motley throng.

The wind is hushed, the stars grow pale,
The pensive moon her light doth veil;
And whirling on, the magic choir
Sputters forth sparks of drizzling fire.
– Goethe’s FAUST I, lines 3744-2749 & 3781-3784

Goethe also wrote “Der Walpurgisnachtstraum” (“Walpurgis Night’s Dream”), which he later incorporated into Faust I as a “play within a play.” The title is a paraphrase of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and he also borrows some character names from Shakespeare. In this mini-drama, Goethe gets even with some of his contemporaries using satire.


Haymarket Riot (1886) | Haymarket Riot
»» Although Labor Day in the US is not on May 1, as in much of the world (including Germany and most of Europe), that date became significant because of a labor strike and riot in Chicago in 1886, known as the Haymarket Riot. Seven of eight “anarchists” judged responsible for the riot were condemned to be hanged, but only three were actually executed. A fourth committed suicide in his jail cell. In 1890, May 1 became an international date for the workers’ movement – but not in the US, where the first Monday in September is Labor Day.


Kreuzberg (Berlin) | Berlin-Kreuzberg
»» The Kreuzberg district of Berlin has gained a reputation for often violent leftist demonstrations on May 1. The first big Kreuzberg demo and ensuing riots and looting happened in 1987. The Berlin police in Kreuzberg were completely overwhelmed by the event. More than 100 people were injured before the police were able to bring things under control on May 2. Now the police plan and prepare for the annual disturbance led by leftist students and other anti-authoritarian, anti-faschist groups. This includes promoting events such as the family-oriented “Myfest” designed to counter the violent tendencies of the leftist demonstrators.


Labor Day | der Tag der Arbeit
»» The first day of May (May Day) is a legal holiday in Germany and many other countries. The date has to do with the Haymarket Riots in Chicago in 1886, but the US has its Labor Day in September. (Also see “Haymarket Riot” and “May Day.”)

Löwen, Johann Friedrich | Johann Friedrich Löwen (1727-1771)
»» Löwen was a poet and writer who was a contemporary of Lessing. Born in the Harz region, he later wrote a poem popularizing the regional Walpurgis Night legend on the Brocken. Die Walpurgis Nacht. Ein Gedicht in drey Gesängen was published in 1756.


May Day | der erste Mai/Tag der Arbeit (“labor day”)
»» The first day of May (May Day) is known as “Labor Day” in Germany, Europe and in many parts of the world. In Berlin and Hamburg it is the date of the annual leftist “May Day riots” (1. Mai-Ausschreitungen) which usually begin on Walpurgis Night. (See “Kreuzberg.”) In rural regions of Germany May Day is a time to play pranks on neighbors, much like Halloween’s trick or treat custom. It is also a time for Walpurgis Night bonfires in many places. (Also see “Haymarket Riot.”)

Maibaum - Maypole

Ein Maibaum in Bayern.
A Maypole in Bavaria.

PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Maypole | der Maibaum
»» The Maypole (Maibaum) is a tradition going back to the 16th century. The Maypole custom is popular in Austria, Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, East Frisia and some other regions of Germany. On either May 1 or the night before, a decorated tree or tree trunk is usually erected in a public place, sometimes in the town square or the village green. Practices vary, but the Maypole usually remains in place for about a month. In many communities in Bavaria, the Maibaum stands all year. The Maypole tradition is also still alive in some other parts of Europe, notably in England.

May singing | das Maieinsingen
»» The custom of “singing in the month of May” is best known in Marburg, Germany.

May wine | die Maibowle/der Maiwein
»» Also known as Maitrank, Maiwein or Waldmeisterbowle, this is a special white wine punch (mixed with semi-dry sparkling wine) seasoned with sweet woodruff (Waldmeister). Like sangria, other ingredients are added to make a wine punch traditionally served in May. May wine can be homemade or purchased in bottled form. The first mention of May wine was in 854, when Benedictine monks prepared it at Prüm Abbey near Trier.

Mendelssohn, Felix | German composer, Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847)
»» Mendelssohn composed “Die erste Walpurgisnacht,” a cantata for choir and orchestra, based on Goethe’s ballad of the same name (“The First Walpurgis Night,” 1799). Goethe’s ballad tells a story of trying to practice pagan rituals in the Harz mountains in the face of new and dominating Christian forces. He wrote the ballad with the intention of having it set to music. Mendelssohn’s first draft in 1830 had to wait 13 years for completion, when the cantata was performed in Leipzig for the first time on February 2, 1843. (Goethe died in 1832.) The composition itself consists of ten specific movements, running a total of about 36 minutes.


patron saint (m.) | der Schutzheilige/der Schutzpatron
patron saint (f.) | die Schutzheilige/die Schutzpatronin
»» St. Walburga is the patron saint of: mariners/sailors, harvests, Antwerp (B), Eichstätt (D), Gronigen (NL), Oudenarde (B), Plymouth (UK). She is the patron saint against: coughs, famine, plague, rabies, storms.

pontifical (adj) | päpstlich
pope | der Papst (Päpste)

Pope Adrian II | Papst Hadrian II. (See “Adrian II” above.)

Free PDF Download!
A PDF printable birthday dates calendar for notable people from Austria, Germany and Switzerland, plus the dates of holidays and observations. More: The German Way Birthday and Holiday Calendar

Romans, the | die Römer (pl.)
Rome | (das) Rom


St. Walburga | die heilige Walburga – See “Walburga” below.


Walburga/Walpurga/Wealdburg (St. Walpurga) | die heilige Walburga (ca. 710-779)

Willibald Walburga L Cranach

St. Walburga pictured with her brother Willibald (left) and Gabriel von Eyb, the Bishop of Eichstätt (center) in an oil-on-wood panel painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553).
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

»» St. Walburga, born in England around 710, was an Anglo-Saxon Christian missionary who worked in the Frankish Empire (today’s Franconia region of Bavaria). She may have been canonized in 870 on 1 May by Pope Adrian II, but that is not certain. (She may not have been canonized by Adrian II at all, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia.) Walpurgis Night occurs on the eve of her canonization date, which coincides with May Day. Walburga was probably born in Wessex in southwest England. She belonged to a distinguished aristocratic family, and her favorite brother Winibald was the bishop of Bavaria in Eichstätt. He asked her to be the abbess of the “double monastery” (with both nuns and monks) he had established at Heidenheim. After the death of Winibald in 768, Walburga took over the administration of the entire monastery.

Walburga Black (1925-1985) | Walburga Black
»» A fictional character in the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, Walburga Black was a pure-blood witch (Reinblütin), the daughter of Pollux Black and Irma Crabbe and sister of Alphard and Cygnus. She married her second cousin Orion Black, so her married name was the same as her maiden name, and had two children, Sirius and Regulus Black.

Walburga’s feast days | Gedenktage der Walburga

  • 25 February
  • Last Sunday in April (in Eichstätt): translation of her bones
  • 4 August (in Münster): arrival of her bones
  • 1 May – In medieval times this date commemorated Walburga’s canonization and the interring of her bones, giving the eve of 1 May the name Walpurgis Night.

Walburga relics and miracles | Walburga-Reliquien und -Wunder
»» From the Catholic Encyclopedia: “Boniface was the first missionary to call women to his aid. In 748, in response to his appeal, Abbess Tetta sent over to Germany St. Lioba and St. Walburga, with many other nuns. They sailed with fair weather, but before long a terrible storm arose. Hereupon Walburga prayed, kneeling on the deck, and at once the sea became calm. On landing, the sailors proclaimed the miracle they had witnessed, so that Walburga was everywhere received with joy and veneration. There is a tradition in the Church of Antwerp that, on her way to Germany, Walburga made some stay there; and in that city’s most ancient church, which now bears the title of St. Walburga, there is pointed out a grotto in which she was wont to pray. This same church, before adopting the Roman Office, was accustomed to celebrate the feast of St. Walburga four times a year.”

»» From walburga.org (the Benedictine Abbey of St. Walburga in Colorado, founded by nuns from Germany): “Many years after [Walburga’s] death, her bones were taken from Heidenheim, then in ruins, to the town of Eichstätt, Bavaria, which had been founded by her brother St. Willibald, who served as its bishop. Her relics were entrusted to the care of a community of Benedictine nuns founded for the purpose of maintaining her shrine. To everyone’s surprise, her bones [Gebeine] began to produce a clear liquid, called oil for want of a more accurate word, which people began to use as a tool for prayer for the sick. Countless numbers experienced healing of body or spirit through her intercession. St. Walburga’s oil continues to flow every year from about October 12 to February 25, two of her feast days. It seeps from her relics through a thick slab of stone where it is collected and distributed by the nuns of the Abtei St. Walburg.”

»» “[St. Walburga’s] body was first discovered to be immersed in a precious oil or dew, which from that day to this (save during a period when [Eichstätt] was laid under interdict, and when blood was shed in the church by robbers who seriously wounded the bell-ringer) has continued to flow from the sacred remains, especially the breast. This fact has caused St. Walburga to be reckoned among the Elaephori, or oil-yielding saints. Portions of St. Walburga’s relics have been taken to Cologne, Antwerp, Furnes, and elsewhere, whilst her oil has been carried to all quarters of the globe.”

Walpurgis Night | die Walpurgisnacht (night of 30 April to 1 May)
»» How did a heathen festival like Walpurgis Night become connected with a Christian saint? One theory is that shortly after Walburga’s death she was confused with the pagan fertility goddess Waldborg. Or it could be just another example of the Christian Church taking over a popular pagan holiday, as it did for Christmas and Easter. At any rate, the Walpurgis Night “witches’ sabbath” festivities take place on the eve of May 1, the date of Walburga’s supposed canonization by Pope Adrian II. Known as “Vappu” in Finland and “Valborg” in Sweden, Walpurgis Night is also observed in those countries.

Willibald and Winibald | Willibald und Wunibald
»» Saint Walburga had two brothers named Willibald von Eichstätt (700-787) and Winibald/Wunibald von Heidenheim (701-761), both of whom also gained sainthood. All three were related to Boniface (he was their uncle) and all three worked to build up the Christian Church in Bavaria.

witch | die Hexe (-n)
»» The “witches’ sabbath” or Great Sabbat (Hexensabbat) are terms related to Walpurgis Night, in which witches play a big role. (Also see “Brocken witches,” “Beltane” and Halloween.)

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