Finnish flags are flying throughout the city. Blue cross on a
white flag against the white snow. Government buildings, office blocks,
apartment buildings, restaurants. A gorgeous sight.

Finns
fly the flag proudly. But only on certain days. And only at certain
times – 9am until 6pm (except midsummer, where it stays up all night).
Some
apartment blocks have a strict flag rota – a friend moved into an
apartment and was given a list of the flag days with an asterisk next
to the flag days that he was responsible for. Woe betide the person who
was responsible for an empty flagpole on the designated flag-flying
days.

On 6 December, the flags flew for Finnish Independence Day. It was on 6
December 1917 that the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland became the
Republic of Finland.

The
highlight of the Finnish social calendar is the President’s
Independence Day Ball held at the Presidential Palace – a cross between
a British Royal Garden Party, Vienna’s New Year’s Eve Ball and the
Academy Awards. It’s white tie, glamorous couture and civic sashes,
orders and medals. The President invites around 2000 people –
diplomats, captains of industry, politicians, clergy. And the
long-jumper who won the only Finnish medal at the World Athletics
Championships, and the young singer who won Finnish Idol. Everyone else
watches it on TV, or reads the newspapers full of photos the next
day. The Independence Day Ball is the contradiction at the core of the
egalitarian republic.

But
the most striking thing about Finnish Independence Day is what it
isn’t. It’s not a day for parties or for drinking. It’s solemn, sombre,
almost sacred. It’s a time for remembering. It’s flying flags but also
lighting candles. Finnish independence was
drenched in blood. Finland’s continuing independence has been
a struggle and a delicate diplomatic dance. Russia is the dark, unspoken
sceptre.

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