Finland’s birth in 1917 was not so well-timed. Already with the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II earlier that year, Finland – an autonomous part of Russia – set its sights on even more autonomy. During the pleasant months of summer, chaos ensued in Russia and civil war erupted in Finland. The tumult finally came to a head in the dreary days of November, when the Bolsheviks ignited the second Russian revolution of that year and the Soviet Union was born. Finland took that opportunity to rush for the exits, declaring its independence on December 6th.
Pekka Haavisto, parliament member and Green Party
presidential candidate, with his partner at last year's party.
The result is a national day of celebration at the bleakest and less fun time of the year. Grilling hotdogs outside in freezing rain or snow during the mere six hours of near-twilight that passes for daytime in November is no one’s idea of fun. It’s not for nothing that marraskuu, Finnish for “November”, derives from a word that means death.
It’s not due to the weather alone that Itsenäisyyspäivä is a more solemn affair than Fourth of July. The fact that people died in a bitter civil war at the birth of modern Finland is still a harsh reality nearly within living memory. One way the holiday is celebrated is by somber candle-lit marches along dark streets. More common is the custom, followed almost without exception, of every home placing a lit candle on a windowsill from precisely six to eight in the evening to commemorate those who died, 94 years ago and since, to ensure Finland's independence.
But it’s not all gloom. In fact, the real centerpiece of the holiday is the president’s ball, a festive tradition hard to underestimate for its power to captivate the Finnish nation, especially the female portion. It is, in some sense, the Finnish equivalent to the hoopla surrounding the Oscars. The basic idea, which never varies, is that the president and his or her spouse stand for two hours at the head of a reception line, shaking the hands of a couple of thousand guests, who slowly file along a red carpet into a stately ballroom while a military band provides a constant background of sedate, semi-martial music.
Eija-Riitta Korhola, EU parliament member,
at last year's party.
The lucky invitees include all parliament and cabinet members, high-ranking government and military officials, foreign diplomats, and captains of Finnish industry (such as, this year, the marketing genius behind Angry Birds). Also, invited are sports and entertainment personalities who have been especially successful during the year. The guests move slowly along the red carpet accompanied by their spouses or dates, which – befitting liberal Finland – also nowadays include same-sex couples.
The entire procession of dignitaries is televised by YLE, the state-run TV station, with off-camera presenters explaining who the most notable guests are and – in true red-carpet fashion – commenting on their fashion. The more stunning evening gowns are examined in close-up shots and replayed in slow motion. These will also be featured in the pages of the next day’s tabloids, along with other highlights from the party.
Champion figure skater Laura Lepistö, in 2010.
After greeting the president, all the guests wait, packed almost sardine-like, in the ballroom watching the procession until the last honored guests, always the former presidents, have been greeted by the first couple. Refreshments then follow, with the most distinguished guests joining President Halonen in the "Yellow Salon" for coffee and dessert and polite conversation (also televised).
This is also when the TV hosts begin on-air interviews with notable partygoers. A popular target for the reporters this year was Olli Rehn, the current EU economic and finance commissioner, who had taken a break from trying to avert the complete collapse of the eurozone to fly in from Brussels just for the party.
After coffee, the dancing starts, with President Halonen and her husband kicking off the first waltz. As the evening progresses, the military band ups the tempo with slightly more contemporary tunes, while cadets stand by to dance with any female guest who doesn't have a date. The dance floor is so crowded that couples can hardly move, but I’ve heard that after the television cameras shut off, the room quickly clears out except for those who just want to dance.
Parliament member Tanja Karpela at last year's ball.
Before the night is through, the celebration moves to after parties located at various Helsinki nightspots, some with television crews on hand to capture the action. Television coverage continues the next day when one of the commercial stations airs its own condensed version of the previous night’s festivities.
For all the self-conscious showiness of the party, it is genuinely considered an honor to be invited and probably a lot of fun, not to mention popular to watch – about half the population is estimated to have tuned into last night's ball. And why shouldn’t Finns put on a little glitz and party down (after a fashion) in front of the cameras. You could say they’ve won the right to choose how to celebrate the independence of their nation – despite weather outside that might, just might, tempt some to forsake it for one with a bit more sunshine.