Finland, despite what internet conspiracy circles might claim, is an actual country. That stretch of land (and lakes, so many lakes) that lies between Estonia, Sweden and Russia has quite the history. And when it celebrates its Independence Day, it celebrates hard.
- Finland: independent from… what?
Finland has spent a good deal of its history occupied. The Swedes ruled it from the 13th century till 1809. On that year, Russian Empire prevailed over Sweden in the Finnish War. From then on, Finland was an autonomous Grand Duchy in the Russian Empire.
However, by 1917, the Finns had gotten tired of living under the frankly backwards Empire and felt the desire to do their own thing. With the collapse of the Russian Empire due to World War I and the Communist revolution, Finland declared independence in 1917. After a brief and bloody civil war in 1918, the first anniversary of independence was commemorated on December 6th.
- When somberness and parties meet
December 6th is a day of contrasts in Finland. Having had to defend their country not even 80 years ago (USSR had two attempts at conquest before and during World War II), the people still have a cultural memory of the struggle. That’s why patriotic speeches are given and cemeteries are visited. Many cities host torch cavalcades with students wearing traditional white caps. At the end of it, wreaths are placed at war memorials.
On the other hand, bakeries produce cakes decorated in white and blue (the colors of the flag, you know), people gather to eat grand meals and toast, and there’s a gala for fourth graders at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki. Good time is had by all.
- The Near-Official Movie Of The Celebration
As I said, Finnish Civil War was short, happened a long time ago and had such unsavory elements as Red POWs dying from malnutrition. However, the fights against USSR are more recent – and more titanic – struggle. That’s why YLE, the Finnish public service broadcaster, shows the movie adaptation of Väinö Linna’s novel The Unknown Soldier (Tuntematon Sotilas).
The movie shows simple soldiers in the Continuation War and the 1955 version the one that’s broadcast every year (the 1985 adaptation was shown only once). Half the country has seen it, making it a very grim counterpart to the phenomenon of watching Home Alone on Christmas.
- A Baller Ball
One of the biggest – if not the biggest – events of the day is the President’s Independence Day Reception. It’s the gala event that gathers all the VIPs and the creme de la creme of the Finnish society. Again, half the population watches it as journalists mob some 2000 guests that are to shake hands with the president.
Only half of the celebration is broadcast on the television – the latter half is under a total media blackout, which leads to rumors and gossiping. Outside of the gala, various organizations gather to protest, what with the visibility and establishment credentials of the event.
It is traditional to light to candles in a window for the celebration. The proper custom dates back to 1920s. However, even before that, people lit candles on the birthday of poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg (he who created the Finnish national anthem and inspired a pastry) to protest the Russian reign.
It is said that the candles had an even deeper meaning before that. As World War I saw Germany (and the other Central Powers) throw down with Russia (and the other members of the Entente), Fins secretly traveled to Germany and Sweden to train as jagers – light infantry – in order to fight for independence. The candles supposedly marked houses that were willing to provide shelter and food to these volunteers. I guess it worked since the Whites received German helped during the civil war.
Missed the celebration this year? You can always go there the next year – I doubt the Finns will start regretting their independence any time soon. However, this one-day celebration (even if it starts on the evening of the December 5th) can be easily missed due to flight disruptions. Delays, cancellations and overbooking can all mean that you will only reach Helsinki too late for the show! In that case, claim flight compensation with Skycop – you stand to gain up to €600!