About once a month, one of my housemates greets me in the morning by asking me if I know what day it is. Every time I immediately become concerned that I’m late to pay rent. But that’s never the case. Still, she likes to wait a few seconds while my face contorts with mild panic. Eventually she tells me, “there are witches and cats wandering the streets today. If someone knocks on the door, don’t open it.”
Sometimes I think that her sentences are foreboding because certain elements get lost in translation. Other times, I think she just likes to play with me. Eventually she explains: “The children dress up as witches and cats the Sunday before Easter and they go around the neighborhood knocking on doors. If you open the door they will recite a traditional Finnish riddle to you, but they will expect money or candy in return.”
Virvon, varvon, tuoreeks terveeks, tulevaks vuodeks; vitsa sulle, palkka mulle!
(I wave a twig for a fresh and healthy year ahead; a twig for you, a treat for me!)
The tradition is called Virvonta and is a combination of Swedish Easter tradition and the old Orthodox tradition of blessing homes with willow branches. In their hands, the children carry the branches of pussy willow trees which they have decorated with colorful feathers and ribbons. They give each of their neighbors a colorful branch and expect candy in return. By the end of the day, each household has a collection of decorated branches from around the neighborhood which get displayed in a vase during the week leading up to Easter.
This year, Finnish municipal elections landed on the same day as Virvonta. The distribution of power in the Finnish government is quite unlike the distribution of power in the United States. Unlike in the United States, the President of Finland has relatively little power. Most of the legislative power is given to the Parliament of Finland and executive power is given to the Council of State. Municipal elections effect neither the Parliament nor the Cabinet, but rather is the election of councilors to the local administrations of the 311 municipalities in Finland. Each municipality elects its own representatives and thus different political parties get more representation in different municipalities. Like in America, the cities are generally more liberal than the country side.
The six most popular political parties in Finland are the National Coalition Party, The Finnish Social Democratic Party, the Centre Party of Finland, the Green League, the Finns Party, and the Left Alliance. The current president, Sauli Niinistö is from the National Coalition Party, however, the largest political party in Parliament is currently the Centre Party which hold 49 of the 200 seats. The Centre Party is followed by the Finns Party, also known as the True Finns Party. They are the nationalist party in Finland and currently hold 38 seats in Parliament.
When I first arrived in Finland I was surprised to see how vocal the Finnish nationalist party had become. I was repeatedly stopped and asked to sign petitions by people who were quite disappointed when they discovered I didn’t speak Finnish. I came to Finland from Hungary and in Hungary much of the youth support Hungarian nationalist parties. I expected Finland to be different and for nationalism to be much less present. However, for many months I have watched supporters of the True Finns camp out outside the Central Railway Station in Helsinki and in opposition, seen many of the immigrants currently living in Helsinki are camped out nearby. Between the two camps is an outdoor ice rink and most of the time this slab of ice is enough to keep the two parties at a peaceful distance from one another.
Interestingly, the municipal elections suggest that the people of Finland are moving their support away from the True Finns. The True Finns received only 8.8% of the votes in the municipal election. In the 2015 parliamentary election they earned 17.7% and in the 2012 municipal elections they had earned 12.3%. The largest gains came from the Green League which received 12.4% of the vote, an increase of 3.9 from the last municipal election. In Espoo, the municipality in which I live, 56% of the councilors elected were women, but in general only 39% of those elected were women. Some fun graphics about this data can be found at https://vaalit.yle.fi/results/kv2017.
April the 9th was also the day of Mikael Agricola also known as Finnish Language Day. Agricola was born c. 1510 and was the first person to write down the Finnish language. Up until this point there had been no standard written form of Finnish. When Agricola published his Finnish translation of the New Testament he also had to add some new words to the Finnish language. The Finns have a few different words for “bear” but no word for lion, since there are no lions in Finland. So, Agricola decided that leijona would be the Finnish word for lion.
The 9th of April was a meaningful day for children, voters, and linguists in Finland. As a foreigner, it was a day when I was reminded of how much time it takes to become part of another country’s culture. I got to observe tradition and have meaning explained to me, but I don’t have childhood memories of decorating willow branches nor do I have the power to vote.
I study the Finnish language, I read Scandinavian literature, and I live with a Finnish family. But, I am still an American abroad. When I think about my progress in getting to know the people and culture of Finland I often return to this humorous yet poignant passage from Hope Jahren’s book, Lab Girl:
“The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily… It must be a survival skill left over from the old Viking days, when long silences were required to prevent unnecessary homicides during the long, dark winters where quarters were close and supplies were dwindling.”