Walpurgis Night (Walpurgisnacht), the night before May Day, is similar to Halloween in that it has to do with supernatural spirits. And like Halloween, Walpurgisnacht is of pagan origin. The bonfires seen in today's celebration reflect those pagan origins and the human desire to drive away the winter cold and welcome spring.
Celebrated mainly in Sweden, Finnland, Estonia, Latvia, and Germany, Walpurgisnacht gets its name from Saint Walburga (or Walpurga), a woman born in what is now England in 710. Die heilige Walpurga traveled to Germany and became a nun at the convent of Heidenheim in Württemberg. Following her death in 778 (or 779), she was made a saint, with May 1 as her saint day.
In Germany the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz Mountains, is considered the focal point of Walpurgisnacht. Also known as the Blocksberg, the 1142-meter peak is often shrouded in mist and clouds, lending it a mysterious atmosphere that has contributed to its legendary status as the home of witches (Hexen) and devils (Teufel). That tradition predates the mention of the witches gathering on the Brocken in Goethe's Faust: "To the Brocken the witches ride..." ("Die Hexen zu dem Brocken ziehn...")
In its Christian version, the former pagan festival in May became Walpurgis, a time to drive out evil spiritsusually with loud noises. In Bavaria Walpurgisnacht is known as Freinacht and resembles Halloween, complete with youthful pranks.
(Also see Halloween.)