May Day, or “Vappu,” is a special day in Finland. A carnival-like spirit fills the air, and typically reserved Finns take part in outdoor festivities across the country.
The national holiday is a celebration of “worker’s day,” but it also marks the arrival of spring and the end of yet another long, dark winter. For kids, Vappu is all about visiting the outdoor May Day markets in the city, where knickknacks of every type are sold, from whistles to big helium balloons. No matter how old you are, May Day is not complete without tippaleipa, a funnel cake only sold around May Day, and a glass of sima, a home-brewed soda made with lemon and brown sugar.
As I child, I was fascinated by the preparation of this bubbly concoction. The procedure itself is quite simple—mix water, sugar, lemon and yeast, pour into the empty soda bottles and let ferment for three to five days—but I always took this process with grave seriousness. My dad was really the one doing most of the mixing and measuring, but I was an eager spectator, taking pride in popping raisins into each bottle before the caps were screwed on and the sima was taken to our cellar for fermentation. The raisins play a crucial role: as they sit in the lemon mixture, the raisins soak up the yeast, and start floating up to the top of the bottle. Once all the raisins float to the surface, the sima is ready to be enjoyed. Simple as the soda-making is, it can also be very particular—too little yeast or too cold an environment and the mead turns out flat, while too much yeast or too warm of an environment and the bottles are at risk of exploding, due to the pressure created during the fermentation. We learned this the hard way: one year our cellar stairs became flooded with sugary fizz, and we had to settle for store-bought sima, which sadly tastes nothing like the home-brewed version.
My family always spent most of Vappu_at the markets, taking a break to visit my grandmother’s office in one of the buildings facing the marketplace. I remember feeling so special as we would escape the crowds up to our 8th floor look out, where we were greeted with a bottle of _sima and fresh tippaleipa, which my grandmother made even better by adding a touch of lemon zest to the batter. For me, this was the highlight of the day: sitting in front of the window, sipping my lemony beverage and picking apart the strips of funnel cake, while looking down at the buzzing market square, counting the number of balloons that had escaped the hands of their owners. I no longer live in Finland, but at the start of every spring I think back to this perfect May Day memory: family, tippaleipa, and sima.