The celebration of Independence Day is quite different in Finland than it is in the United States: the Finnish event is a quiet, solemn occasion in December when there is barely more than six hours of daylight in Helsinki, while the Fourth of July in the United States is the opposite in almost every respect. The way Finns and Americans celebrate independence has no doubt changed over time, but there are some traditions that seem to have remained fairly constant over generations, and those customs can teach us something about the history and the values of the societies.
When I think of traditions associated with Finnish Independence Day, three come to mind immediately: raising the Finnish flag at Tähtitorninmäki in Helsinki, lighting candles in homes as well as at cemeteries and the Presidential reception in the evening, watched live by 2.5 million Finns (nearly half the population of the country!) on TV.
Tähtitorninmäki – literally Observatory Hill – is a knoll on the south edge of Helsinki overlooking the harbor. The University of Helsinki built an observatory on top of the hill in 1834, and over time residents of Helsinki began to call the area Tähtitorninvuori, which became its official name in 1928, although nowadays it is almost exclusively referred to as Tähtitorninmäki.
Tähtitorninmäki was originally bare rock, but in the 1860’s large amounts of soil was transported into the area and work to make the hill into a park was begun, making it a popular destination for weekend walks. Artwork was also installed, the most famous one perhaps being Robert Stigell’s sculpture Haaksirikkoiset which depicts a shipwrecked family. While the artist refrained from assigning any political or patriotic meaning to the work, it nevertheless inspired many such interpretations when it was first displayed in 1898. This was due mostly to the family members in the sculpture having their backs turned to the east and looking with hope towards the west. The artwork and the views from it towards the Suomenlinna fortress gave Tähtitorninmäki significance as a gathering place for patriotic Finns at the turn of the 19th century, and this naturally led to it eventually being chosen as a location for celebrating Independence Day.
The modern tradition of raising the flag at Tähtitorninmäki on the morning of Independence Day began in 1957, however, a similar custom had been started on Finland’s tenth Independence Day in 1927. At the time the blue and white flag of Finland was viewed by many as a symbol of the bourgeoisie and not of the nation. To help shift this viewpoint, Itsenäisyyden Liitto – a patriotic Finnish organization – introduced various events throughout the year, including the flag raising at Tähtitorninmäki.
Lighting two candles on a window sill on Independence Day is another tradition started by Itsenäisyyden Liitto in 1927. Burning candles during the darkest months of the year is common in Nordic countries, but the precise origins of using candles, and specifically two of them, for commemorating Independence Day are not known; however, it was common to light candles during the time of Swedish rule to mark royal family anniversaries as well as visits by the King to Finland. This custom continued during Russian rule, but towards the end of the 19th century, when oppression by Russians increased, the tradition changed to lighting candles as a sign of protest on February 5th, the birthday of Johan Ludvig Runeberg.
The use of two candles may have come from the practice of marking soldiers’ “safe houses” with two candles. In 1914 Finnish activists started the Jääkäriliike – Jaegar movement – whose aim was to obtain military training for Finnish men in Germany. During the soldiers’ travel through Sweden to Germany they needed places for rest, and those safe houses – etappitalo – were marked with two lit candles.
The Presidential Independence Day reception, the so-called Linnan juhlat, has been held at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki since 1919, when President Ståhlberg’s daughter arranged a modest reception with coffee and “sweet bread” for 150 guests. 1922 saw the first evening celebration, and in 1925 the tradition of all guests being greeted at the Palace entrance by the President and his spouse began. The 1925 reception was also the first one to include dancing, which along with the “handshake ceremony” became a fixture of the event. Celebrations varied quite a bit depending on the president and the times: prohibition ended in 1934 and with that alcohol was included at the party, although under President Kyösti Kallio (1937 – 1940), who was very religious, no drinking or dancing occurred at the reception. During the war years the event was suspended, and afterwards it’s been cancelled four times for various reasons.
Due to repair work at the Presidential Palace, the reception will be held in Tampere this year. This is the first time that the event is not being held in Helsinki, and there will be other changes that go against decades old traditions: no dancing and men will not be required to wear tuxedos.
There are, of course, many other Independence Day traditions, and we have a long-lived one in Seattle as well, namely our Independence Day Dinner and Dance which was held on December 7th this year.