Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Flying the Flag for Finland

When I was last in Helsinki, just over a week ago, the Finnish flag was flying from every building in town.

It wasn't in honour of my visit though, even if that would have been a rather nice gesture given that it was my last for quite a while...

In Finland, the flags are flown on many occasions throughout the year. In fact, this happens so often that even the Finns don't always know why the flags are flying. On this occasion, I had to ask about a half a dozen Finns before I found one who actually knew why the flags were out.

Like in many countries, the national flag in Finland is an important symbol of indepedence and pride. Unlike most national flags though, the Finnish flag comes in a number of flavours apparently.

The basic flag is the blue cross over a white background, possibly symbolising the lakes and the snow of Finland. That is your every-day sort-of-flag, for the average "Jukka Bloggs", so to speak.

The State has its own version, that includes a coat of arms in the middle of the cross showing a golden lion on a red background. Apparently, that coat of arms (which dates from the 16th century) was the subject of much debate when Finland gained independence in 1917. Some felt that a bear would be a more accurate reflection of the Finnish wildlife (well, err, yes), but their view was defeated by those who believed the bear was too closely associated that that bothersome neighbour, Russia.

The president also has his/her very own flag, which in addition to the coat of arms, features the symbol of the Order of the Cross of Liberty (vapaudenristin ritarinkunkta), of which he/she is the Grand Master (or Grand Mistress?).

In other words, on any of the special Finnish days (of which I counted 18 excluding election days, referendum days and presidential inauguration days), each and everyone flies their own flag. Virtually every building, public or private, has its own flagpole, so the effect is quite impressive.

I do realise that Finland is not unique in regularly flying the flag, however it is quite a contrast to England where I live and where the flags are flown only when the Queen has a Jubilee (every decade or so) and when the English football team plays in a big tournament such as the World Cup. And even then, not every building has a flagpole so the effect is far less impressive than in Finland (in fairness, England does have many beer-bellied topless men with tattooed Union Jacks or St George's Crosses, but that's not quite the same).

And the reason for the impressive display of flags on my last visit? War Veterans' Day apparently.



  1. I love flag days. As you say, the effect is quite impressive, and especially on dark winter days all those flags really lift my spirits.

    I got curious about the Finnish version of "Joe Bloggs" or "John Citizen", and would you believe that someone has actually written a Wikipedia entry with a list of the equivalents in various other languages! Apparently in Finnish it's "Matti Meikäläinen" :)

  2. You've been pretty quiet with your blogging recently Olli. I was worried you might be flagging. Ali :)

    1. Flagging!!! Very clever! Hahaha!

  3. Our housing company or whatever you would call it in English doesn't have a flagpole. It was discussed at an early meeting just after we had all bought the newly built houses but the consensus was it was too expensive and no one could be bothered with all the putting up and taking down business. One of the Finns also came up with an excellent excuse to avoid paying for a pole: "there are foreigners that have bought houses here as well, they don't want to pay for our bloody flag!" :) Up until then I had always thought Finns were a bit flag mad, but seemingly no my neighbours at least.

    And you forgot the maritime version of the Finnish flag: https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150365098732959&set=a.10150350248182959.399831.764542958&type=3 :)

    1. So, you haven't hired a maintenance company (huoltoyhtiö) or a maintenance man (talonmies, though unfortunately rare these days)? It's usually their duty to do raise and lower the flag on flagging days.
      For other activities like births and deaths in residents' families, the residents are on their own and may even have to buy second flag for convenience (as the maintenance company may wish to house the primary flag elsewhere for their convenience).

    2. In my "housing company" we took one-month turns doing the maintenance man stuff - reading meters, doing the flag thingy, shoveling snow(!!). I usually managed to screw up at least the flag part - overslept a few hours (I was a student), forgot to take it down at sunset or 9pm or forgot the whole thing. This didn't add to my popularity in the community at all. My favourite was juhannus (midsummer), when you leave the flag up for the whole night, and only need to remember to get it down at 6pm the next day!

      I think all things flag are very important for the generation whose parents were in the war. Anyway, I'm happy to live in omakotitalo now, with no flagpole! No chance to screw it up again :)

  4. You may also notice that the lion is holding a straight sword in his hand, as swords typically are in the west, while the curved sword is beneath his feet, as swords typically are in the east, symbolizing the triumph of west over east.