Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finnish Independence Day - Itsenäisyyspäivä/Självständighetsdag

A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate to play with my orchestra (Akademiska Orkestern vid Åbo Akademi) at a special event celebrating Finland's Independence Day (December 6 - Itsenäisyyspäivä in Finnish, Självständighetsdag in Swedish).  It was wonderful that I, as a foreigner, got to participate in the celebrations of what is probably the most important day to the state of Finland. I was surprised that it was also completely unlike any American Independence Day celebrations I have seen.

Random video of Independence Day in Helsinki, on the steps of the Lutheran cathedral.  This is the hymn from Sibelius' Finlandia (LISTEN TO IT IF YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD IT BEFORE!!), which is considered the unofficial national anthem of Finland because it is so good.  You can look up the lyrics, but my Finnish friends tell me they are way more awesome in Finnish.

Random video of the official national anthem - Maame laulu, filmed in Turku.  I think this took place on Christmas during Turku's 700-year-old tradition of declaration of the Christmas peace.  Often a verse will be sung in each of Finland's national languages (Finnish and Swedish), but here it appears to just be in Finnish.

For starters, it is NOT a drinking holiday but rather a day of sober reflection on what it means to be Finnish.  Finnish flags are flown from all flagpoles, which is an unusual sight because there are only a few days of the year where that is allowed (unlike the US where many private homes fly American flags throughout the year).  The highlight of the day is actually a televised ceremony where the President shakes the hands of many important people, one after the other, for a few hours.

If you feel so inclined, here is a recording of the excitement that is the president shaking hands with lots of people.  Finns love this stuff!

History of the day
For those who are unfamiliar with Finnish history, the day celebrates Finland's independence from Russia, which was declared in 1917.  Before that, it had been a semi-autonomous region of Russia for just over 100 years, taken from Sweden during the Napoleonic wars.  This is really interesting because it means that Finland as a sovereign nation is still not 100 years old.  However, this Independence appears to only be a minor aspect of the modern celebration since I don't think there is anyone alive who remembers it.  What seems more important to the Finns is their continued independence through World War II, because they had a set of wars with Russia that could easily have been lost.  However, the Russian strategy was just to use their superior numbers (Finland only had around 3 million people at the time) so the Finns ended up killing around 5 Russians for every one of them that died.  This war involved the whole country, and pretty much everyone my age has at least one relative who was in the war, so it still is very much part of the modern mentality.  It is a really fascinating war (Helsinki is the only capital of a European country involved in WWII that was not occupied) and I suggest that anyone interested in the military history of Europe read up on it - Winter War and Continuation War.

Two languages
One interesting aspect of the ceremony for me was that everyone spoke in both Finnish and Swedish.  Just as we in the US we have many people who only speak English and many who only speak another language (Spanish comes to mind as a common native language), I have friends here who only speak Finnish or only Swedish.  It was therefore surprising to me that the ceremony was given in both languages, even though I knew that both are official.  It is very interesting to see how a country can have a minority (the Finland Swedish, aka Finlandssvenskar, aka Suomenruotsalaiset, only make up something like 5% of the population) that still has many rights.  I think it has something to do with the fact that historically they were the ruling class (when Finland was part of Sweden) and the fact that many important people who helped create Finnish independence (including Sibelius himself) were Finlandssvenskar.  More on this another time.

A surprising keynote speech
What surprised me most about this day was the keynote address given as part of the ceremony we played at.  The room was full of veterans in uniform, but as far as I could tell with my limited Finnish and Swedish skills, the speaker did not make any reference to them, and they definitely did not stand up or receive applause.  This was very surprising to me as an American because I cannot think of a single patriotic event where we don't acknowledge them "and the sacrifices they have made to keep us free".  Yet here in Finland, the room can be filled with decorated veterans and they go unrecognized, apart from those who brought the flag in.  Perhaps it is because Finland has not fought any wars (or "police actions") since WWII?

So what did the speaker discuss if not the military?  Surprisingly, the very thing I came to Finland to study - global sustainability.  He first asked the audience to discuss with each other what "independence" means to them (answers given included "own language" and "ability to make own decisions").  Then, the rest of the speech was about (again, this is based only on my understanding of Finnish and Swedish, but I think I got the gist of most of it) out-of-control population growth (he showed a bunch of graphs), the economics of food, and how if we wish to remain truly independent we must act in sustainable way.  He even mentioned that this year was the first year where more people died of obesity than of hunger (but I have no idea what his numbers are based on).  No wonder Finland is such an environmentally-focused country.

My Independence Day in Finland, complete with veterans and a speech about global sustainability.  We later played several patriotic songs on the stage, including Finlandia, Maame Laulu, and the Sibelius Violin Concert (patriotic because Sibelius is a national hero).

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