Happy independence day, Finland!
Finland celebrated its 102nd independence day on Friday, on December 6; and in two weeks, I will also be back in Finland, stuffing my face with delicious Finnish bread and probably trying all the novelty chocolates they’ve brought out since I’ve been gone.
Even though I don’t live in Finland anymore, I love my homeland fiercely and proudly. Kind of like a mean big brother, though. You’ve probably heard me talk a lot of smack about Finland. I probably meant every word of it. Even so, I still think it’s the best country in the world.
During my travels, people always seem to be surprised to find out I’m from Finland. Maybe it’s my deceptive British / Australian / whatever-that-day accent; maybe it’s the fact that Finnish people really are quite a rare sight to behold. Most people, when meeting me, respond in two ways:
- Oh, cool, I’ve never met anyone from Finland before!
- Oh, cool! I met this Finnish guy once. He was really weird. Nice, though.
I’ve also noticed that people don’t know a whole lot about my dear homeland beside the fact that it’s cold, dark and expensive. (And has a great education system.) So, I decided to put together a little post with some trivia knowledge – Fun Finland Facts!™ as you’ve probably seen me periodically exclaim if you’ve spent enough time around me.
1. Home of the SMS
The phone company Nokia has been one of the biggest success stories in Finland and many people largely credit the company for keeping the Finnish economy afloat in the mid-1990s financial crisis. They were the first company to manufacture a phone that was able to send an SMS text message – so it isn’t too surprising that the inventor of the text message, Matti Makkonen, was Finnish. The reason he isn’t known as “the Finnish Graham Bell” is his modesty: he said he couldn’t credit himself as the sole inventor of SMS since he was working with a team of people and built on previous research and prototypes of other inventors – all of whom he always credited before himself.
2. What’s that song?
Everyone who’s ever heard of Finland probably knows we’re renowned for our heavy metal bands (that have an inexplicably loyal following in weird places like Germany and Brazil). In fact, Finland has the highest number of heavy metal bands per capita in the world.
So it might come as a surprise that Finland is actually the home of one of the first ultra-famous electronic tracks, Sandstorm by Darude. The song that came out in 1999 is without a doubt the most famous Finnish track ever and has permeated the world of sports events, background tracks and pop culture. Yeah, it’s that “what song is this?” meme song.
If you’re not into electronic music, Finland has tons of amazing indie pop artists as well that put out music in English. If you’re interested, you can find my (short but sweet) Spotify playlist featuring my favourite English-speaking Finnish songs here.
3. “The more the merrier” – or not?
English-speaking people are welcoming: “the more the merrier”, as the saying goes. Funnily enough, the closest idiomatic expression in Finnish has the exact opposite meaning. “Väki vähenee, bileet paranee” means that as more people leave, the party gets better. It’s not for nothing that we’re so often dubbed antisocial.
4. A president with an uncanny resemblance to a celebrity
I have no clue where it started – but someone said that Tarja Halonen, the president of Finland between 2000-2012 (and Finland’s first female president ), looks like the American talk show host Conan O’Brien. And then we couldn’t shut up about it.
It’s not the only connection O’Brien has to Finland. In his show, he wanted to insult every country in the world to see where he’d get letters from – a genius (?) way of finding out in which countries people were watching his show. He had this to say about Finland: ‘You’ve had over 5,000 years of culture, and the world’s most famous Finn is still Huckleberry.’ Apparently he received a ton of letters from Finland but instead of taking offense, they insulted their country even more. That’s Finns for you.
In 2006, Conan O’Brien actually visited Finland for a segment on his show and got to meet his presidential doppelgänger. The two met up and exchanged small gifts – chocolates for Halonen, Moomin merch for O’Brien – on Valentine’s Day; fittingly, since in Finland Valentine’s is not a lovers’ day but a celebration of friendship.
5. Saunas rock
You might already know that saunas are a Finnish invention – but did you know that “sauna” is the only Finnish word used in the English language? In fact, saunas are called saunas in almost every language except for Swedish; they call it “bastu”.
To be quite honest, the first origins of sauna can’t inconclusively be tracked to Finland but it did start somewhere in the Northern Europe and developed at about the same rate in all the Northern regions. However, Finns did invent the first electric sauna!
The sauna tradition can seem ridiculous at best to those who didn’t grow up with one. In Finland, you normally go in naked – whether bathing with your family, friends or colleagues (because sauna nights are actually a thing at Finnish work places and student events). If it’s winter, you might go outside for a while for a cheeky roll in the snow before sprinting back to the sauna; in the summer, we take branches of birch trees (with leaves on!) to gently slap our sauna buddies on the back.
I promise it isn’t as weird as it sounds like. Going to the sauna – including all the bizarre side quests like snow-rolling – improves circulation, eases muscle pain and, above all, it’s goddamn relaxing.
We love our saunas, and while the exact number of saunas can only be estimated, that estimation has the total number at about 3 million in 2017 – pretty impressive, considering there are only 5.5 million people in Finland.
6. Santa lives in Finland
If someone told you Santa lives in the North Pole, then you’ve been fooled, my guy. He actually lives in Finland, near the town of Rovaniemi on the Arctic circle. You can even visit his house!
The origins of the Finnish Santa tradition are actually fascinating and completely pagan. The character is based on two Finnish characters, “kekripukki” and “nuuttipukki”. Kekri is a traditional harvest festival, almost comparable to Halloween, and nuutti refers to St. Knut’s Day on January 13; “pukki” means goat. (Santa in Finnish is “joulupukki” – or, “Christmas goat”.) During these two holidays, young men used to dress up as goat-like characters, mainly wearing furs and brandishing antlers or goat horns, and go from house to house asking for food and alcohol.
Later, this tradition turned from annoying pre-frat frat boys begging for booze to children going around singing songs in exchange for sweets and coins. Even later, it transformed into the visitor giving presents, not taking anything away.
The Finnish Santa never quite got as crazy as his Icelandic cousin. (He apparently eats the naughty children.) Still, his scary pagan origins did inspire Rare Exports, a few short film productions turned into a hilarious feature film about taming wild Santas. Watch the short films here and here.
Oh, but what about Santa’s emblematic red clothes? Santa in red was popularised by 1930’s Coca Cola ads (even though he had been imagined that way already decades earlier) but you might not know that the man behind the Coca Cola Santa in red was called Harold Sundblom – and American-Finn.
7. Our national sport will surprise you
As known as Finland is for its proficiency in winter sports, our national sport is – funny enough – Finnish baseball. It has a different set of rules than, say, American baseball, and even among Finns it’s not a terribly popular game.
8. The champions of the world’s most bizarre competitions
We have the most bizarre events. Seriously. Some strong top contestants include cow dung bingo, Nokia throwing, rubber boot throwing, beer floating, hobby horsing, swamp football and sauna championships (of course.) These two are probably my favourites, though.
Since 1996, the Northern city of Oulu has been the literal stage to one of the more well-known Finnish bizarre displays: the Air Guitar World Championships. It is exactly what it sounds like. Contestants get on a stage and play air guitar. It’s become pretty popular all over the world now, even so that some countries have to arrange pre-qualifiers! Unfortunately I’ve never had a chance to see this event live but you should check out Adventurous Kate’s delightful piece on it.
The second one is Wife Carrying World Championships. This one is especially close to my heart since it’s arranged about a twenty-minute drive from my hometown in a neighbouring village – I’ve even worked the event one summer.
In this competition, a man carrying a woman – not necessarily a wife or even a girlfriend – has to clear various obstacles in as short a time as possible. The winner gets as many litres of beer as the woman he carried weighs in kilos. Of course, most people are out there not to win but to have fun, and they often come dressed up in costumes. A few years ago my godparents’ daughter and her then-fiancé, now-husband dressed up as Peter Pan and Tinkerbell.
9. Finnish has no word for “please”.
“Please” is often incorrectly translated for tourists as “ole hyvä” – however, this is more of an equivalent of “there you go” or “de nada”. In case you still want to be polite and ask someone to pass the vodka, please, you can use the word for “thank you” instead – kiitos.
10. The world’s most proficient sniper is Finnish
Finland gained its independence around the first World War, but during the second one the country was up in arms against its Eastern neighbour once again. During the winter war, under-trained and severely outnumbered Finnish guerrilla troops – many trained in Nazi Germany – fought against the Soviet Union with everything they had.
One of the best-known soldiers from that war was Simo Häyhä who operated as a sniper and is hailed as the person with the most individual kills in the history. While no exact numbers are known, his total kill count is estimated to be 542 – which earned him the nickname “White Death” from the Soviets.
Towards the end of the war, he was shot in the face but survived, and he didn’t gain consciousness again before the war had already ended. He spent the rest of his life peacefully farming land and died at 96 years of age; when asked if he felt guilty about his history, he responded with, ‘I did what I had to’.
Another fun (?) winter war fact: Molotov cocktails might not have been a Finnish invention originally, but Finns were the ones to popularise the name. One tactic that Finnish guerrilla soldiers utilised was setting bottles of alcohol on fire to create makeshift bombs that they then used to destroy Russian tanks. The name came from Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister at the time who claimed that the planes over Finland were not dropping bombs but food assistance packages; so the Finns, forever married to their sarcastic sense of humour, started claiming they were not throwing bombs at Soviets but cocktails for Molotov.
11. Finland is the only country with its own emojis
In 2016, Finland became the first country in the world to publish its own set of emojis. The endeavour by the foreign ministry to promote Finland included 56 images including northern lights, sauna, heavy metal, Åland and Sami flags, reindeer, Moomin and Nokia 3310.
I have to admit that even I don’t have the Finnish emojis downloaded – mostly because contrary to expectations, the emojis ended up being more like emoji stickers than emojis you could sprinkle into your texts. They also have a 2-star rating on Google App Store.
12. The most famous mystery in the Finnish history
I’m a huge sucker for true crime and everything morbid and mysterious so of course I was going to include this on the list. (Last year when I was searching for more information on this, I actually ended up accidentally finding my new favourite podcast, Morbid, who did an episode on this case)
The case is known as the Lake Bodom murders.
In 1960, four teenagers were camping by Lake Bodom in the capital region. Three of them ended up getting brutally murdered while the fourth one was injured but managed to escape. The murder weapon has never been found – nor has the murderer. Many wild theories were presented, including a blond man that showed up at the teenagers’ funeral and matched a sketch artist’s drawing perfectly as well as a retired German Nazi that was also suspected to be connected to the disappearance and murder of Kyllikki Saari. In 2004, the fourth teenager – the sole survivor – was arrested as a suspect but soon acquitted without proof. I doubt the mystery will ever get solved.
The murders have inspired a lot of spin-offs in popular culture, including a Finnish heavy metal band Children of Bodom and a 2016 horror movie borrowing the name of the lake but without any actual connection to the case.
13. Torilla tavataan
You might have already heard of some quintessentially charming, typically Finnish phrases like “perkele” (a swear word) or “kalsarikännit” (getting drunk alone at home in your underwear without any intention of going out later.) But “torilla tavataan” might encapsulate even more of the Finnish spirit.
“Torilla tavataan” translates freely as “let’s meet at the marketplace”. This marketplace would be the Kauppatori market square in Helsinki where thousands of Finns gathered to celebrate after Finland won its first ever gold in the Ice Hockey World Championships in 1995. The next year, the hockey team’s slogan was “let’s meet at the market place” – as in, we will win this year as well, get ready to party. Well, the victory fell short but probably the most iconic Finnish meme had been born.
“Torilla tavataan” is now uttered any time Finland or Finnish people succeed in something. Kauppatori square has turned into a venue of impromptu street parties for example in 2006 when Lordi won the Eurovision Song Contest (the only win Finland ever had…), in 2011 at the second hockey championship gold, and in 2019 as Finland’s men’s football team qualified for then Euro Cup for the first time ever.
Now the phrase is used even more broadly – mostly whenever Finland is even mentioned in any foreign context. See, we’re a small and humble nation and we get very excited when we get noticed.
14. Finland is not Scandinavia
Surprise! While many think Finland is a Scandinavian country (and will argue about it with you based on one definition or another that they’ve read), that is actually not true. Scandinavian countries are Sweden, Norway and Denmark that all share a similar cultural, historical and linguistic heritage – plus Sweden and Norway are geographically connected by a mountain range that’s literally called the Scandinavian Mountains. Finland is a total oddball in that mix.
Finland is, instead, a Nordic country; Nordic countries are Scandinavia plus Finland and Iceland, and politically you can sometimes count the Baltic countries into that bunch, too.
15. How we actually celebrate Independence Day
Finland used to be a part of Sweden for about 1,000 years before becoming an autonomous annex to Russia in the early 19th century. It is really remarkable that such a small country has managed to maintain a very distinctive culture and language of its own, one that’s not dependent or at all related to all of its strong surrounding influences – mainly, Russia in the East and Scandinavian countries in the West.
Finland celebrates its Independence Day on Decemeber 6. It became independent from Russia in 1917 towards the end of World War I when lots of other countries were starting to break up into little pieces, too.
But how to celebrate when it’s snowing, dark and -15 degrees outside? Simply, we sit inside and watch as the president and his or her partner shake hands with a bunch of famous people on TV for like three hours. (Because it’s Finland, you might also enjoy a beer at the same time.)
The Independence Day Reception – also known colloquially as the Palace ball – is held in the President’s Palace in Helsinki and televised live around the nation. It’s basically just a big, fancy gala where the guests range from distinguished singers, writers and other artists to journalists, politicians, ambassadors, star athletes, presidents of universities, bishops and war veterans – in a word, a mixed bunch of somehow renowned or respected people. And then they walk in, shake hands with the presidential couple and go have snacks in the big hall. And we watch every minute of it.
Yeah, I don’t know either.
Finland is the most wonderful, amazing, beautiful, bizarre country in the world, and even if I don’t live there anymore, I will always consider it my homeland and be proud to be from there. Also I love Fun Finland Facts. This list was originally titled 100 things you never knew about Finland. (If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed I’ve slipped extra facts in the explanations. Oops.) Maybe I’ll write another list next year.
Thanks for reading!
What’s your favourite Fun Finland Fact? Or what’s a Fun Fact about your country?