In December 6, 1917, the Grand Duchy of Finland ended its autonomy within Russia and declared itself an independent nation.
Suomi -known to the rest of the world as Finland- was finally free from the tug of war between its two powerful neighbors.
However, years of strife followed; a short but bitter civil war tore the country apart; a pre World War II invasion from the east resulted in the loss of land and life, but little Finland fought the harrowing Winter War to protect their homes and culture, remaining independent and giving birth to the distinctly Finnish term “Sisu.” Sisu- aside from being a brutally strong licorice candy (and the potential name of our future dog)- is a unique Finnish concept that Wikipedia defines concisely as:
“…stoic determination, grit, bravery, resilience, and hardiness and is held by Finns themselves to express their national character…”
If you were paying attention at the beginning of this history lesson, you noticed that Finland celebrated its 100th birthday just last week
As our 4th independence day here in Finland, I can say confidently that Independence Day in Finland is not what it is to those of us who grew up waving flags and attending air shows each year. Aside from the fact that Finns aren’t ones for over-the-top nationalistic overtures (or anything remotely ostentatious), an Independence Day landing in the pit of winter calls for different traditions; most years, it is celebrated by staying in and watching the whos-who of Finland enter the ball at the Presidential palace and passing commentary as they queue (very orderly, of course) to shake the president’s hand. So for us, the last 3 celebrations have gone largely un-noticed for us except for the moderate inconvenience of all stores being closed.
This year, however, there was no ignoring the monumental occasion. After New Year 2017 being rung-in with dualing firework shows as Finland’s most famous DJ, Darude, played his mega-hit Sandstorm (ask any child of the 90’s- they know it), there have been ongoing events all year. Last week, they culminated as the capital was aglow with blue and white lights, parades, parties and state visits. The rest of the world also joined in, with over 50 sites such as Niagra Falls and Rio de Janerio’s Christ Redeemer awash in blue and white lights.
Throughout the week, we took some very cold evening strolls around the city to enjoy the beautiful display.
A few days before the big day, Jimmy and I went to a showing of a newly released remake of a classic Finnish film, Tuntematon Sotilas– “Unknown Soldier”. Remade for the centennial year, this war epic is a beautiful and sobering look into Finnish life and ideals during the Second World War. It provides a fascinating glimpse not only into Finnish national character -with excellent examples of Finnish humor!- but also into war from the other side of the front. If you love war films, are curious about Finland, the people, the land and its history, and don’t mind 3 hours of subtitles, I cannot recommend it more highly. I was deeply moved and so pleased that we started our independence-week with this reminder of the strength of Finnish national character.
The day before the actual holiday, we joined a group of friends to kick off the celebrations at the Helsinki Ice Challenge- a temporary hockey rink set up in the city’s central park. We joined enthusiastic fans and watched President Sauli Niinistö drop the ceremonial puck just as heavy snow started to fall. During the frequent snow-clearing breaks, fans from both sides chanted and cheered across the stands, but the entire stadium was respectfully silent as their president dropped the puck- and cheered wildly after! Sadly, Helsinki’s I.F.K. lost to Oulu’s Kärpät in overtime, but we were rewarded with a sight I had never seen before: Fireworks in the snow!
Ice hockey, outdoors, in sub-freezing temps, in the snow. With girls selling hot chocolate from heated backpacks (and an extra spike of mint-flavored liquor!) AND fireworks! It was magical!
The evening ended in a bar where, at exactly midnight, shots of Jalovina (which I don’t recommend to anyone, ever) were passed around as a favorite Finnish national song was played. Everyone stood, cheers-ed and congratulated each other and we took our terrible shots as one.
The holiday ended for us with a Firework show over the main harbor. There were, of course, parades and activities throughout the day, but we simply enjoyed the day off before joining the throngs of thousands along the waterfront to cheer at the sparkling sky and wish Finland a happy 100th birthday!
Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivä, Suomi!