While university students have the “time-honored tradition of doing nothing useful,” as described by one Estonian journalist, students in Tartu, Estonia honor this tradition spectacularly. It’s a ritual dating back to the 70s when Estonia celebrated International Friendship Days in the spring as a part of the USSR. During this period, there is an age-old tradition called Walpurgis Night, which is held on the last night of April across Northern Europe. It generally entails a youth festival marked with parties, concerts, cultural events, and lots of alcohol.
The feast is not dissimilar to a medieval carnival, having in common the idea of surrendering the city’s rule to students. Tartu students have decided that while they might not be able to have an actual drink with their monument on Walpurgis Night, that doesn’t mean the statue can’t be a party to the celebration. As the rector of Tartu University is socially obliged to have a symbolic mug of beer with his students, the same applies to the most famous scholar of the country, Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), embryologist and discoverer of mammalian ovaries.
After his doctorate, Von Baer studied medicine in Tartu and moved to different notable universities, such as Vienna, St. Petersburg, and Königsberg. He returned to Tartu to spend the last decades of his life. A commemorative statue was erected in Tartu Toomemägi Park in 1886, just a few years after his death. Why wash it with champagne and beer, then? Sometimes it’s hard to say where the custom comes from, even for those who keep it alive. It could be that it’s just a form of joyful celebration with an amusing (though silent) drinking buddy.
However, there’s also a more likely interpretation. Some say that the Walpurgis Night shower is precisely an act of bathing. Von Baer, a biologist in XIX c., was very interested in hygiene, and one of his dissertations covered the topic of endemic diseases in Estonia. As the overall health of its citizens was poor, he suggested the necessity to improve living conditions and sanitary habits, which included bathing. With hindsight, we know today that he was on to something with his emphasis on bathing. Now von Baer himself serves as an example of how to do hygiene right. Bubbly bath, anyone?