Mind the gaffe

14 December 2012 | Non-fiction, Tales of a journalist

Illustration: Joonas Väänänen

Celebrating Finnish Independence Day is a serious business involving lots of handshakes and plenty of pitfalls for the unwary, observes columnist Jyrki Lehtola. But luckily there’s plenty of fun to be had for ordinary Finns in complaining about it all

When Finland makes the news, it’s usually because of a national tragedy or something odd we do. The latter ripe fodder for filling the blank pages of the international media on slow news days includes such things as the Finnish penchant for competitions in such sporting events as Wellington boot /mobile phone tossing (saappaan- / kännykänheitto) and wife carrying (akankanto).

We have another odd national tradition, although it has never received as much international recognition as the fact that we carry our wives competitively. This time- honoured custom repeats annually on the sixth of December, when we close our shops and barricade ourselves gloomily within our homes. Its name is Independence Day.

In Finland we celebrate our independence seriously, fervently and under state direction. Behind it all, usually unexpressed, is relief that because we are independent, we are not a part of Russia, which is the last thing we want.

That is what we celebrate. Glum, stolid, ardent, exactly as though something had died.

As with our everyday lives, our celebrations are televised. Independence Day is a reason for us to stare at the television, because it is Independence Day – unlike Wednesday, for example, when we stare at the television because it is Wednesday.

Our televised celebration of our freedom consists of two basic elements. The first is a three-hour film adaptation of Väinö Linna’s novel The Unknown Soldier (1954), which every Finn must view at least once each year in order to be a real Finn.

The second is the formal reception organised by the president at the Presidential Palace, which was viewed this year by 2.5 million (almost a half of the population) Finns marking the birth of their nation by sitting on their sofas.

We watch the special guests – the elite and a smattering of country folk, elevated to the status of ordinary citizens for the evening by presidential decree – shuffle by. Slowly they proceed from one side of the screen to the other, because they are in a queue at the end of which they will shake the hands of the president and his spouse. Once the handshaking is complete, the moment past, we wait for the next person to shake the president’s hand.

Once these two hours of handshaking fireworks have passed, the TV cameras move into the palace to interview the guests. First they ask them what independence means to them, and they reply that, wow, it means a lot. Then they ask them what independence means to them, and they reply that wow, it means a lot.

Then the cameras leave the party, and we move from our couches to our beds, another Finnish holiday behind us.

Strangely enough, the modern day has also arrived in Finland, changing our festive traditions and giving the papers the opportunity to publish lists around Independence Day about things we are supposedly furious about as a nation.

To start off the festivities, we are furious at the Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE for following the rules of the road we have all agreed upon. One of these rules is that media content unsuitable for children under the age of twelve cannot be shown in television screens before five o’clock in the evening.

The horror, the horror! YLE had originally listed the broadcast time for The Unknown Soldier as 2 PM, but was forced to move it to 5 PM in order to comply with legal requirements. This meant that there would now be millions of people in Finland whose two Independence Day highpoints would overlap: a film they have already seen several times and a ritual that remains unchanged year after year.

Unacceptable. The social media and YLE filled with the righteous indignation of citizens because YLE refused to break the law just because somewhere here is a nation for whom celebrating requires grumbling about its own celebrating.

And that wasn’t all. The rest of the evening was ruined too, because the guests did everything wrong at the Presidential Palace Ball we will never be invited to and which we therefore watch on TV more grumpily every year.

A reporter addressed a guest informally, a disgrace we’re unlikely to survive.

One of the guests was dressed as a prostitute – how will that woman’s children survive tomorrow? Clearly they won’t.

One female guest was dressed in pants – before, the lesbians at least stayed in the closet.

Gays dancing… hmmm, everyone can live their lives, but I don’t know if that’s quite appropriate, since we do have war veterans after all.

A photographer took pictures of the wrong people, even though we do have war veterans after all.

A reporter forgot a guest’s name – he should be fired.

A minister tweeted from the ball – don’t they have any respect for the sacrifices Finland has made?

Another guest was dressed as a prostitute too. And a third and a fourth. The war veterans turned over in their nursing homes.

The wrong person received an invitation, probably through a bribe or blackmail.

One male guest was wearing silver shoes – shouldn’t there be some limit? This is a dignified celebration after all.

Someone flashed a bit of brassiere, even though we do have war veterans after all.

As we kept a sharp eye out for these errors, lo and behold, this day of gloom and formality finally started producing something approaching a feeling of joy.

The more mistakes we found, the more we rejoiced. As a nation we had finally found the gaiety and jubilation within ourselves, that warm feeling when we can laugh together at someone we don’t know and then go on Facebook and continue mocking them.

Translated by Owen Witesman

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