Finland’s annual cycle of public festivals and holidays serve to punctuate the clear division of the seasons, from the chilly winters to the glorious summers.
New Year’s Day
If it’s not too cold, firework displays are an increasingly popular way of bringing in the New Year at midnight on December 31. New Year’s Day is a national holiday. January 6 is Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, and also a public holiday in Finland.
The snow may be melting and hints of spring are in the air, but Easter itself is a quiet time. In fact Helsinki and other towns and cities are like ghost towns over this weekend. The accent is on religious celebration and homely gatherings, although the familiar chocolate goodies and lamb dinners are as much in evidence here as elsewhere in Europe. Good Friday and Easter Monday are national holidays, so this is a restful long weekend.
May 1 – Vappu
You know spring has sprung if you are in Finland on April 31 and May 1, even if a lingering winter nip remains in the air. On and before April 31, balloon sellers appear in the centre and around the shopping malls, selling their inflated wares from gaudy, bobbing bunches. The Vappu celebration, as it is known, gets under way in Helsinki when a big crowd gathers in the Esplanadi park to watch the ritual washing by students of the fountain statue of the Havis Amanda maiden near the Market Square. Anything goes at Vappu, and it goes on most of the night, especially if it’s not raining. May 1 is marked with a traditional, but annually dwindling May Day Labour parade to Helsinki’s Senate Square, where the Socialist devotees are rewarded with speeches. There is a strong socialist tradition in Finland, but these days Labour Day is leisure day. An impromptu party is held as the sun comes up (or as the drizzle descends) in the shoreline Kaivopuisto park, the last stop on the previous night out for many celebrants.
The lengthening days are sufficient reason to celebrate for the coming weeks, until Midsummer, which is when many Finns begin their summer holidays. The Midsummer weekend, which is the one closest to the longest day of the year, sees an exodus to the thousands of cabins and holiday homes hidden in the forests and lakes all over Finland. The Saturday of this weekend is a holiday.
Business-people looking for deals or contacts anywhere in Finland from Midsummer until the end of August might as well give up and wait until the autumn.
All Saints Day
If you visit one of the big Helsinki cemeteries – in Malmi, for example, or Hietaniemi – on the weekend of All Saints Day (October 31, or early November) you will see relatives visiting and lighting candles on the graves of loved ones. This makes an especially touching and attractive spectacle if the graves are already covered with snow.
Independence Day on December 6 is a dignified reminder of how Finland wrestled itself from Russian rule in 1917. The tradition is to light two candles in your window at six in the evening, then settle down in front of the TV to watch the procession of dignitaries and celebrities file past and shake hands with the President of the Republic as they enter a reception at the President’s Palace.
The Christmas holiday is very family-oriented and domestic hatches are nailed firmly down. The main celebration is on Christmas Eve, when candles are again lit in the cemeteries. Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day are all national holidays. Hibernation is a favourite activity in the week between Christmas and New Year – another time when the city’s business life appears to be held in suspension. Then it’s time for those New Year fireworks again.