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In the 1930s, after the eldest students of the lyceum’s left school to study for the matriculation exams, some of the second graders saw an opportunity to gather in a massive party and boost their status. They were, after all, now the new seniors.

Read more about the history of lyceums (oppikoulu):
A lyceum was a government-funded secondary school known as “oppikoulu” in Finnish that started in 1914. (However, there were private funded schools as well.) Oppikoulu was a school of higher education that combined keskikoulu and lukio (middle school and the upper secondary school). There were lyceum’s separately for boys and girls but also mixed schools for both genders. After four years of public school, kansakoulu, one could apply for oppikoulu, which in total consisted of studies for eight years. In the 1970s, the system was renewed more or less to the current form: a child would at first study in the elementary school for six years and after that three years in the secondary school. After finishing secondary school, a student could apply for upper secondary school or vocational studies. Both paths offer an opportunity to apply for a higher degree in a polytechnic but only an upper secondary school, where the student graduates after finishing the matriculation exam, opens a path to the university.

The times were rough, though, even for a party. Finland was still recovering from the world and civil wars and in 1929, the Wall Street Crash resulted in a worldwide depression. Thanks mostly to the farmers who fought the recession by exporting to Britain, Finland survived. Trees were industrialized to paper, architecture bloomed and by the end of the decade, cars started to become more common. When the Soviet Union attacked to Finland in 1939, it all changed. But the young adults of a lyceum in Helsinki insisted on keeping the spirit high by dressing up.

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A senior for the Arcadia Normal Lyceum, 1953. Source: Helsinki City Museum / Photographer: Unknown

Unlike its peers, the Normal Lyceum of Arcadia focused on its pupils’ independence and creativity, while other lyceums were known to stress foreign languages and mathematics. In Arcadia, the interaction between the teachers and students was close, and in this relaxed atmosphere, it was easy to arrange a costume party while having some fun by looking older.

In the middle of the sound of blasting bombs, the second graders wrapped themselves in old clothes found from the depths of their home closets. Boys dressed in their fathers’ big suits and the girls clad themselves in their mothers’ old dresses. During the wars, the options for clothes were scarce and at the time it was classy to look twice older. The middle-agers were, after all, respected people.

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Students celebrating the Day of the New Seniors at the year of the Arcadia Normal Lyceum in 1953. Source: Helsinki City Museum / Photographer: Unknown

The costume tradition started spreading slowly, it became known as the Day of the New Seniors, but not without resistance. In some other lyceums, there was a limit to how old a young student could look. In 1949, in a lyceum for girls, the students were allowed during the ceremony to emphasize their maturity by wearing earrings (otherwise forbidden) and dressing in top fashion by Dior, but when a year later, the students dressed in their grandmas’ clothes, it offended the headmaster of the school. According to her, it disrespected the elderly teachers of the establishment.

In the 1950s, the Day of the New Seniors was starting to be known across the country. The richest students rented their costumes from a theater adding great variety to the party, with dresses from the 19th and 20th centuries. While the hairstyles were usually homemade, many boys borrowed their beards and mustaches from the theaters as well.

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A senior walking in the park at the park of the House of the Estates in Helsinki in 1956. Source: Helsinki City Museum / Photographer: Unknown

According to the Helsinki City Museum, Normal Lyceum of Arcadia was also the first to start implementing dances to their party, too. University life, which would follow the studies at the lyceum, offered many opportunities to waltz in the parties, so especially the girls were keen to learn traditional dances such as Cicapo and Mignon from the 19th and 20th centuries already in the lyceum.

For reasons unknown during the writing, the dance bug was slow to spread; some schools arranged celebrations of the new seniors without a ball still in the 1970s. In fact, the New Seniors’ Ball was a private event of the school until the 1980s when after the celebration started slowly to open for the parents and relatives as well.

Today the Day of the New Seniors is still a conservative event. And while the improved standard of living has made it possible to spend hundreds of euros for suits and dresses, and another there are still families who can’t afford it. Some parents will have to borrow the money for the day’s budget but it may still be worth it. While the students of today aren’t aiming to look older, but younger, really, the New Seniors’ Ball is, after all, one of the only chances for many students to become a prince or a princess – even if only for a day.

Sources: Sofia 28/2007, a publication of the Helsinki City Museum, Jyrki Männistö: Elämän ja koulun vaatimukset. Oppikoulujen opetus, Suomen historia – Henrik Meinander

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