Finnish Independence Day

Exploring the history and traditions of Finnish Independence Day

Five years ago, Finland celebrated its 100th Independence Day with events hosted throughout the year to commemorate the special occasion. Finns are understated people, however, and Finnish Independence Day is no exception. In comparison to some countries like the United States, where Independence Day celebrations tend to be boisterous and jubilant, Independence Day in Finland is a subdued and formal holiday.

Independence in Finland is still quite young, and particularly older generations remember the terrors of war all too well. Due to this, Finnish Independence Day revolves mostly around gratitude toward those who helped ensure that Finland has remained independent throughout the years.

In Finland, Independence Day takes place in December, in the midst of the darkest time of the year. Independence Day celebrations offer a welcomed distraction to Finns struggling with keeping up their energy during the few hours of daylight, before the busy Christmas season begins.

Finns love traditions, and Finnish Independence Day is filled with traditions — on December 6th, you can be sure to find a Finn watching the presidential Independence Day reception on television, visiting a war memorial at a cemetery, and lighting two candles in the window at 6PM.

Finnish Independence Day
Credit: Eric Sundström

When is Finnish Independence Day?

Independence Day in Finland is celebrated on December 6th. In 1917, the year when Finland gained its independence, Russia was struggling under the revolution that had abolished its monarchy — since Nicholas II, the last Emperor of Russia and the last Grand Duke of Finland, no longer ruled either country, Finns saw a window to gain what they had long hoped for: independence.

Finland, which had been under Russian rule since 1809, took the opportunity to negotiate with the Russian Provisional Government and on December 4th submitted a declaration of independence to the Finnish Parliament. The Parliament voted to accept the declaration on December 6th, and thus the Finnish Independence Day was born.

The declaration of independence was not very ceremonial, but the date instantly became an important one for Finns. Finnish soldiers defended the country’s independence fiercely in following decades during the Winter War, Continuation War, and Lapland War.

Due to the losses that Finland endured during the wars, Independence Day in Finland is a tranquil, dignified holiday that Finns celebrate by respecting the sacrifices made by their countrymen.

What do Finnish people do on Independence Day?

How Independence Day in Finland is celebrated

Candles

Candles are one of the most beloved and closely followed Finnish Independence Day traditions.

The origin of the tradition varies, but according to one of the stories, placing two candles in the window at 6PM was intended to signal to passersby that the house in question supported Finnish independence and was willing to offer a safe refuge for soldiers who were traveling to Germany to be trained to fight Russia for Finnish independence.

Another story depicts the candles as an act of rebellion: when Finland was still under Swedish reign in the 1700s, Finns used to light candles in celebration of the Swedish monarchy’s birthdays or when they would visit Finland.

However, in the late 1800s Finns started lighting candles on February 5th, the birthday of the beloved author J.L. Runeberg, as an act of opposition against the Russification that was taking place in the country at the time.

When Independence Day in Finland was decided upon, the candle tradition was moved from February to take place on December 6th. In fact, the Independence Union of Finland, which was active until 1946, actively encouraged Finns to place candles on their windowsills from 6PM to 9PM during Independence Day.

According to yet another story, the candles represented the soldiers during war: one candle was lit to honor those who lost their lives in the battlefields, and another was lit to celebrate those who had been fortunate enough to return home.

Pragmatists believe that the tradition of two candles was born plainly out of common sense: windows used to have two panes, which would have made more than two candles look asymmetrical.

All candles are acceptable to use for the tradition, but special blue and white ones — in Finnish colors, of course — are particularly popular during Independence Day in Finland.

Cemeteries

Visiting cemeteries on holidays is quite uniquely Finnish — many Finns stop by a graveyard during Christmas, All Saints’ Day, and Independence Day.

While visits during the first two holidays usually revolve around visiting the graves of loved ones, visiting during Independence Day tends to be in remembrance and respect of the soldiers who lost their lives to protect the independence of Finland.

The Hietaniemi cemetery in central Helsinki, for example, is a popular destination during Finnish Independence Day due to its large military cemetery section that holds not only the graves of many fallen soldiers, but also the tomb of C.G.E. Mannerheim, the deeply respected military leader and president who led Finland throughout many turbulent times.

The marshal’s tomb receives more than 500 candles from visitors each Independence Day. Hietaniemi cemetery also houses the tomb of the unknown soldier.

During Finnish Independence Day, Hietaniemi is open all day and night. In the morning of Independence Day, representatives from the Finnish army lay a memorial wreath in the military section, followed by a speech by the president of Finland.

More than 100 soldiers stand as guards of honor throughout the day.

Finnish Independence Day
Credit: Vestman

Independence Day parade

The Finnish defense forces host a large military parade every Independence Day in Finland, although the location of the parade varies each year. Each military department takes part in the parade, which is televised each year and is often watched by more than a million Finns at home.

The parade has been hosted annually since 1993, with the exception of the last two years due to the pandemic.

Tuntematon Sotilas / The Unknown Soldier

A movie might not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Independence Day celebrations, but one could simply not talk about Finnish Independence Day without mentioning The Unknown Soldier (originally titled Tuntematon Sotilas).

The film, based on the classic novel by author Väinö Linna, is as beloved by Finns as the original book. The first film adaptation of the book was released in 1955 and remains the most popular movie in Finland of all time: nearly three million Finns saw it in the theaters.

Keep in mind that at the time, there were only roughly four and a half million Finns!

The book has been adapted into a movie twice since, in 1985 and 2017. The second adaptation was not as well received as the first, but the 2017 version, which was created with a large budget and gained a lot of buzz before its release, was once again very popular.

Released as part of the official celebration of the 100th anniversary of Finnish independence, the film became the most watched Finnish movie of the year.

The original 1955 film has been broadcast every Independence Day on Finnish television by YLE, the national broadcasting company, since at least the year 2000. In recent years, the 2017 version has been shown as well.

Many Finnish families consider watching the film on Independence Day during its official broadcast time as an important tradition that should not be missed.

Linnan Juhlat / The Presidential Reception

Perhaps the most iconic of all Finnish Independence Day traditions, the presidential Independence Day reception (unofficially Linnan Juhlat, or the Palace Ball, in Finnish) first took place in 1919 at the presidential palace in Helsinki.

The reception was broadcast on national television for the first time in 1967 and has been a staple of Finnish television on the evening of Independence Day ever since, with some exceptions due to wars, presidents’ illnesses, or the recent pandemic, when the reception was not hosted.

Roughly 2,000 guests are invited to the palace each year, among them politicians, generals, and diplomats. During president Urho Kekkonen’s more than 25 years of presidency, prominent athletes and artists began to receive invitations to the reception as well.

The event is quite formal and requires all participants to dress accordingly.

Some foreigners might wonder what Finns find so interesting about the event: watching the president and their spouse stand at the door and shake hands with each of the few thousand guests may not sound particularly riveting, but Finns love to gather in front of the television to see who was invited and who wore what.

The broadcast always features commentators to name the guests and explain their significance in their respective fields and, of course, to discuss the fashion choices. Local tabloids host polls for best dressed the following day and share snapshots from the afterparties, where the broadcast cameras are not allowed.

Food

Perhaps surprisingly, not many traditional foods exist for Finnish Independence Day. Due to the dignified nature of the holiday, most Finns enjoy a quiet festive meal at home or at a finer restaurant.

The meal usually features at least three courses, which can include anything as long as the ingredients are Finnish and the style of preparation is on par with Finnish cuisine. Raising a glass in appreciation of independence and the sacrifices of Finns who risked or lost their lives to maintain it is a must.

Because the Christmas season is just about to begin, a warm cup of glögi (mulled wine) may be served, perhaps with a side of Christmastime goods like gingerbread cookies or Christmas tarts, the star-shaped, flaky puff pastries that are filled with prune jam.

Celebrating Finnish Independence Day

As Finland enters its second century as an independent nation, the pride that Finns feel for their country is perhaps stronger than ever. Being able to maintain independence from an aggressive superpower right across the border is no small feat, and Finns do not take their good fortune for granted.

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