Finland celebrates Finnish-style
Finland lies on the edge of the sub-arctic zone and within the warming influence of the Gulf Stream. In step with fluctuation in the amount of sunlight, the year has four distinct seasons: winter, spring, summer and autumn. This is reflected in many ways in the pattern of the Finns' lives, and also in the traditions that govern the way they celebrate. The most important festivities are Christmas and Midsummer. The former is celebrated when the Arctic day is at its shortest and the other at a time when the sun does not set at all.
Of the celebrations in which the entire nation takes part, Midsummer is undeniably the most Finnish. Nowhere else (with the possible exception of Sweden) does this holiday play such a central role, although it is observed throughout the Christian world in honour of John the Baptist. In Finland, the Midsummer celebrations are an outpouring of joy inspired by the brief, but powerfully intense summer. Here in the North, Mother Nature has only a few short months to harvest the light of the sun and store all the energy that she will need to carry her through the long austere winter. The summer solstice, on which the day reaches its greatest length, coincides almost exactly with Midsummer Day. In the northernmost parts of Finland, the long summer day lasts 50 on the calendar, and even down south in Helsinki the sun dips only briefly below the horizon on Midsummer night.
Naturally, many traditional popular beliefs are associated with Midsummer, the festival of the "nightless night". Growth is at its most vibrant and some of the secrets of creation are unveiled. Blood surges in young veins and it is an opportune time for maidens to polish their charms. Midsummer has traditionally been and remains the most popular time for weddings.
Midsummer is celebrated in the beautiful bosom of nature. Although more than two-thirds of the Finns nowadays live in urban settings, they migrate en masse to the countryside at Midsummer, to spend the holiday in their beloved forests and on the shores of the lakes. With nearly 200,000 lakes in the country, an almost unlimited length of shoreline and tens of thousands of lakes, everyone can find his or her own place in nature. Finland has more private holiday residences per capita than any other country, in addition to which the so-called Everyman's right guarantees a very high degree of access to the natural environment.
Midsummer is a time to sleep little, sauna-bathe a lot, and eat and drink well. Then, of course, there is the traditional bonfire to light, provided the weather is neither too dry nor too wet.
In addition to Midsummer, the Finns have three or perhaps four other festivals that unite the entire nation in celebration. The biggest of them all - even bigger than Midsummer - is Christmas. It is a home festival, celebrated, like Midsummer, with close family and friends. Children may, of course, visit their grandparents, or else the grandparents are invited to visit, eat Christmas ham and share the excitement of waiting for Santa with their grandchildren. Since he lives in Finland, Santa makes it to every home. The presents that he brings are under the tree on Christmas Eve morning, but only on the following day is it appropriate to show them off to friends. Finland really closes down to celebrate Christmas, or at least Christmas Eve. The shops close at midday on Christmas Eve, Finland's dense network of public transport services grinds to a halt, and restaurants close their doors.
Following a tradition dating from the Middle Ages, Christmas peace throughout the land is proclaimed in Turku, the former capital. This is a symbolic ceremony, but one that still matters a lot to the Finns. It is only on St. Stephen's Day (December 26) that the country really comes to life again, although nowadays one can go to a restaurant and even dancing on the evening of Christmas Day.
In the run up to Christmas, the Finns have lots of fun during the several weeks of the Little Christmas party season. These parties are arranged by every kind of organisation from the boy scouts to parliamentarians, and especially in the business world. They are an excellent opportunity not only to relax, but also to develop personal relationships.
At the height of the Little Christmas revels, Finland becomes serious for a moment on 6 December, when Independence Day is celebrated with great dignity and reverence. A carnival atmosphere does not suit this occasion.
The Finns observe their Independence Day with Nordic reticence and simplicity. Finland had to fight for her independence, and that is what this people wants to remember on 6 December. Candles burn in the windows of homes to honour those who made sacrifices to attain and preserve national freedom. In 1997, Finland celebrated her 80th anniversary as an independent state.