Walpurgis Night Kicks Off Derby Weekend!

Bonfires, witches and revelry will kick off the Derby weekend on Wednesday night, April 3oth, when the ancient celebration of Walpurgisnacht ignites the biggest weekend of the year in Louisville!

Before the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 3rd, before Oaks Day and even before Thurby, another even older spring festival celebration kicks off the party on Wednesday night, April 30th, but most Americans aren’t even aware it’s going on. It’s Walpurgis Night!

Walpurgis Night (also known as Walpurgisnacht) is a traditional end of winter/beginning of spring festival celebrated in much of Central and Northern Europe. Variations of Walpurgis Night are recognized in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. It has been called “the other Halloween” because it’s a very similar tradition that’s exactly six months from All Hallows’ Eve. Just like Halloween, it’s a night when the veil between the world of spirits and the world we live in is supposedly the thinnest.

Named after the English missionary, Saint Walpurga, the festival of Walpurgis is connected to the celebration of May Day, the first day of May which represents the end of winter and the beginning of the new harvest season. The night before May Day is celebrated with dancing, feasting and huge community bonfires built to symbolically burn away the last remnants of winter.

In Germany, the Netherlands and many other countries, it’s also known as “Witches Night,” and it is believed to be the night witches and sorcerers gather to practice black magic because it is on this night that their powers are at their supernatural peak. In these regions, the bonfires take on a more sinister purpose and wicker witches and broomsticks are often burned in the fires to symbolically chase away evil spirits.

Although the celebration of Walpurgis Night has yet to catch on in the United States, and bonfires in the Louisville area are prohibited without city permits and approval of the local fire department, many of us who just can’t wait another six months for a little Halloween magic find a way to celebrate Witches Night in the Ville in our own way.

Should you wish to throw your own Walpurgis Night party, this year I’ve put together a short list of films that you might enjoy watching with a big bowl of buttered popcorn as you await the witching hour on Wednesday night.

Fantasia” (1940): Early in the night, while the kids are still up, this 1940 Walt Disney produced masterpiece of art and music might be a good choice. The “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence is meant to represent Walpurgis Night as the demonic Chernoborg awakens atop his mountain and summons a ghostly horde of phantoms and devils to a fiery hootenanny before the morning sun of “Ave Maria” chases them all back to their realm of shadows.

Dracula” (1931): Louisville, KY born director, Todd Browning, brought Bram Stoker’s vampire king to the silver screen for the first time in the form of Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi. Stoker’s short story, “Dracula’s Guest” (1914), which many scholars believe to be the deleted first chapter of “Dracula” takes place on Walpurgis Night, and Browning’s film also begins on Walpurgis night. Renfield, played by the legendary Dwight Frye, arrives by coach at a small Transylvanian village at the film’s opening. He tells the inn keeper that he intends to travel on to Castle Dracula that evening, but the suspicious coach driver refuses to take him. “He’s afraid,” says the inn keeper, “It’s Walpurgis Night!”

The Devil Rides Out” (1968): This black magic masterpiece based on the Dennis Wheatley novel was produced by Hammer Studios and features a rare performance by Christopher Lee in a heroic role. Here, the evil coven leader, Mocata, is played magnificently by character actor, Charles Gray. In the film, Lee and his friend Rex (Leon Greene) must attempt to rescue an old friend and a young girl from the dark influence of Mocata, who intends to baptize them to the Devil on Walpurgis Night. After saving their souls at the Walpurgis ceremony, Lee must protect them from Mocata’s black magic assault until the morning comes. They must remain inside a magic circle no matter what happens until the light of May Day or forfeit their very souls. Terence Fisher (“The Horror of Dracula”) directed this fast paced, underrated supernatural masterpiece.

La Noche de Walpurgis” (1971): Known in the United States as “Werewolf Shadow” and “The Werewolf VS the Vampire Woman,” this Spanish werewolf thriller stars Paul Naschy as Waldemar Daninsky, who is cursed with lycanthropy. “La Noche de Walpurgis” is actually the fifth film in the Daninsky werewolf series that would go on to include twelve hairy sequels before Naschy passed away in 2009. In this film, one of the most popular of the entire series, Daninsky comes to the rescue of two college girls who are seeking the tomb of an ancient vampire queen. When one of the girls accidentally brings Countess Wandessa back to life on Walpurgis Night, Daninsky tries to protect them. But he’s hiding a secret; he’s a werewolf and the Full Moon of Walpurgis Night will turn him into a raging beast, setting the scene for a werewolf VS vampire finale!

The Wicker Man” (1973): Director Robin Hardy’s undisputed cult masterpiece reaches its fiery conclusion on the morning of May Day and it definitely includes a Walpurgis bonfire! Police Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) travels to the quaint but mysterious island of Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl. Once there, he receives little help from the odd locals, who certainly seem to be hiding something, so he demands to meet their self-appointed leader, Lord Summerisle, played by Christopher Lee in a role he claims to be the favorite of his lengthy career. Sergeant Howie soon finds himself the only holy man amongst one of the strangest nature cults ever depicted on film. Can he rescue the girl before the May Day sacrifice?

Maybe one or more of these classics will quench your thirst for a little “halfway to Halloween” magic this Wednesday night, and help you kick off the Kentucky Derby weekend celebration. Perhaps one year soon, the Derby Festival will join in the fun. After all, the party starts earlier every year. The popularity of the Derby gave us Oaks Day. The popularity of Oaks Day gave us Thurby. If Thurby is a big hit, maybe we’ll have a great Walpurgis Night bonfire in the infield at Churchill Downs on April 30th to ignite the whole festival! Who’s with us?

The Phantom of The Ville

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