Of Witches, Walburga, and Welcoming Spring: The Fearlessness of Tradition

Christianity trucks in reality, and so it will always outmatch the shadows and shimmers of naturalistic belief systems.

(photo: Obra de Juan de Roelas, “Saint Walburga”, c. 1605)

It is just as intolerant to tell an old woman that she cannot be a witch
as to tell her that she must be a witch.
G.K. Chesterton

Ask a serious Harry Potter fan what he knows about “Walburga,” and he’ll tell you she’s a witch – and a particularly nasty one at that. Walburga Black, a haughty pureblood, debuted in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth novel in the wildly popular series. Walburga is best known as the mother of Harry’s animagus godfather, Sirius Black, and her garish portrait shows up from time to time in the Potter corpus, muttering or screaming from behind a velvet curtain.

It’s an unusual name, but it’s no accident Rowling bestowed it on one of her characters, because it has long been associated with witchcraft – at least in Europe. To me, however, it’s the name of a beloved saint, and hence its darker connotations are bemusing.

Walburga’s quirky overlap of sanctity and sorcery came up on NPR a couple weeks back. It was May Day and I was listening to Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac,” his daily five-minute literary oasis in which he marks significant birthdays and historical events, and then offers a brief poetic recitation. I don’t read a lot of poetry, but at least I get a regular dose thanks to Mr. Keillor and his radio spots.

The episode on May 1 included a poem by Donald Hall and the usual smattering of date-related tidbits: The birthday of Joseph Heller of Catch 22 fame; the anniversary of the first postage stamp (U.K., 1840); the Vienna premiere of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786). What caught my attention, however, was Keillor’s review of May Day’s more seditious and carnal associations.

Take May Day and labor unions for instance. Ever since a big U.S. union strike in 1886, May Day has been linked with workers and labor organizing. Since many of those strikers had radical political sympathies, it’s also a day that came to be celebrated by socialists and communists around the world – which is what led Pope Pius XII to establish the memorial of St. Joseph the Worker on May 1 as a liturgical affirmation of the intrinsic dignity of human work.

Yet, as Keillor went on to explain, the significance of May Day goes back way before all that.

Ancient Celtic pagans knew the first of May as Beltane, a fertility festival and a communal ushering in of spring, and modern pagans have revived the observance. There’s feasting and May Poles and all manner of naturalistic rituals to welcome back the sun’s warmth after the cold of winter. In other European regions, this annual rite of spring took up slightly different connections. Here’ how Keillor put it:

In Germany, May 1st was the date of a pagan festival that was assimilated by the Christians and turned into the feast day of St. Walpurgis. The night before — Walpurgisnacht — is still celebrated in parts of rural Germany as a kind of Valentine's Day, with the delivery of a tree, wrapped in streamers, to one's beloved.

My ears perked up at Garrison’s mention of St. Walpurgis (one of many spelling variants for Walburga), but I was puzzled by his explanation of her feast and its vigil traditions. I came to know the saint’s story fairly well because Colorado’s Abbey of St. Walburga used to be situated near my childhood home in Boulder. Moreover, my own family has long had a strong devotion to her, especially following our visit to the Abbey after its move north near the Wyoming border. No offense to Mr. Keillor, mind you, but my love for the Abbey and their marvelous patroness compels me to set the Walburga record straight as best I can.

St. Walburga was an 8th-century English missionary and later an abbess. She came from a brood of saints: her father is known to us as King St. Richard of Wessex; Ss. Winnebald and Willibald were her brothers; and her uncle was none other than the famous apostle to the Germans, St. Boniface. It’s no surprise that Walburga would herself follow in her family’s holy trajectory.

As a young woman, Walburga responded to Boniface’s request for assistance in evangelizing the Germanic peoples. Along her companion, Lioba (yet another saint), Walburga helped her uncle spread the Gospel on the continent, and in 751, at Boniface’s direction, she entered the monastery at Heidenheim – a double monastery (for men and women) where Winnebald served as abbot. After his death, Walburga herself took up the abbatial mantle, and she successfully led Heidenheim’s coed monastic community until her own death in 779.

Walburga’s remains were translated to Eichstätt in the 9th century and buried in a church there. Soon after, a trickle of mineralized liquid began seeping from the tomb, and pilgrims discovered that it had healing properties. “St. Walburga’s oil” became a famous miraculous balm throughout Europe, and it was distributed widely – as were Walburga’s earthly remains. Her feast is celebrated among the Benedictines on her death date, February 25, but the numerous translations of her relics have afforded a wide variety of dates attached to her intercessory legacy, including the prominently pagan May 1.

So much for the saint’s association with May Day; now for the messy business of Walpurisgnacht – a Teutonic twist on the Gaelic Beltane theme.

Garrison Keillor referred to the eve of May Day as a kind of German Valentine’s Day, but it’s really more like a second Halloween – indeed, it’s noteworthy that the two spooky observances are exactly six months apart. Among the ancients, April 30 and the eve of November 1. marked calendrical shifts between the seasons of darkness and light, autumn and spring. Later, those dates came to be seen as moments of thinned borders between the natural and supernatural realms, and those who trafficked across those borders took advantage of the biannual opportunity to celebrate and accelerate their peculiar affinities.

Thus, the last day of April was dubbed Hexennacht (from the Dutch Heksennacht, or “Witches’ Night”), and it acquired the trappings that we associate with October 31: devils, ghosts, and, yes, witches – not to mention excessive drinking and carousing. Add in the feast of a strong female saint reminiscent of Valkyrie heroines, and one can readily understand how the mists of time and our very human syncretistic tendencies led to the convergence of Walburga’s name with a night given over to bonfires and debauchery – a convergence well attested by such diverse figures as Goethe, Jacob Grimm, and even vampire chronicler Bram Stoker:

Walpurgis Night, when, according to the belief of millions of people, the devil was abroad—when the graves were opened and the dead came forth and walked. When all evil things of earth and air and water held revel. 

Now that’s some serious guilt-by-association, and you might think even a saint would have trouble living it down.

Naah. In fact, you could say that St. Walburga’s authentic spiritual endowment not only takes witchy undertones in stride, but also readily baptizes and elevates them.

Such is the fearless assumption on display in The Feast Day Cookbook (1951) by Katherine Burton and Helmut Ripperger. After summarizing the links between St. Walburga’s feast and the pagan Beltane, the authors go on to describe some of the profane medieval customs of the eve. “We are told that Beltane Cakes, large and scalloped, were set against hot stones to bake while a caudle (custard) was eaten,” write Burton and Ripperger, “and beer and whiskey consumed.” The authors go on to casually note that human sacrifice might’ve been part of the Beltane Cake traditions, adding apologetically that they could not “trace any authentic recipes” – as if their readers would naturally be interested in the same. As an alternative, Burton and Rippenger suggest that faithful Catholics might anticipate St. Walburga’s feast “by brewing the first ‘Maibowle’” – a sweet and fruity wine punch popular with pagan May Day revelers.

That, to me, represents an especially healthy attitude toward our Faith’s murky points of contact with primal observances and practices. It’s the same attitude exhibited by Walburga’s uncle, St. Boniface, when he chopped down an oak tree idolized by a Germanic tribe. Instead of burning the wood held sacred by the locals, Boniface used it to construct a chapel, which visibly ratified that community’s subsequent conversion to the true faith.

“All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers,” the Catechism teaches us, “are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion” (2117). True enough, but that doesn’t mean we have to cower in their presence. Christianity trucks in reality, and so it will always outmatch the shadows and shimmers of naturalistic belief systems. Indeed, in some respects, pagan and animist convictions are particularly fallow soil for evangelization since they already admit to a supernatural realm. “We must not be ashamed of the mythical radiance resting on our theology,” C.S. Lewis insists. “We must not be nervous about ‘parallels’ and ‘pagan Christs’: they ought to be there – it would be a stumbling block if they weren't.”

In these heady days of rampant relativism and an ever increasing number of religiously unaffiliated “nones,” let’s not be too truculent in our condemnations of pagan beliefs – nor the fudged lines in the Church’s past that separate those beliefs from orthodoxy. We’re certainly right in forcibly arguing with their proponents, but at the same time we ought to appreciate that they at least believe in something.