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Today Finland bows its head in honor of the fallen soldiers who have helped shape the countries culture, identity, and patriotism. Wars have been a consistent presence throughout Finland’s history, but since gaining independence in 1917, there was a different motivation behind the war and its participants.
The first Commemoration Day of Fallen Soldiers or Kaatuneiden Muistopäivä was inaugurated in 1940 following the Winter War. This war was separate from World War II and started when the Soviet Union invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, due to Finland’s refusal to comply with their demands. These demands consisted of a request for Finland to give bordering lands between the two countries to the Soviet Union. On March 13, 1940, hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, Finland agreed to give the Soviet Union 11 percent of its land and the two countries signed the Moscow Peace Treaty. Finland’s losses were enormous with more than 26,500 deaths over the 3.5 months.
During these turbulent times in Europe throughout the early 1940’s, Finland acquired the friendship of Germany as they sensed the Soviet Union were going to attempt a full takeover. Alongside Germany, Finland attacked the Soviet Union in what the Finns called the Continuation War from 1941 to 1944. Finland the Soviet Union great international respect during these times as anti-semitic practices were not allowed to extend into Finland. Many Jews were even granted asylum in Finland. In fact, there were some cases of Finnish Jews fighting in the Finnish army on the side of Hitler.
War commander and national hero Gustaf Mannerheim became the President in 1944 and declared he would end this war. Finland and the Soviet Union signed a peace treaty again and the expulsion of the German soldiers from Finland was ordered. This started a third war, the Lapland War, which saw the Germans pushed out of north Finland and into Norway. It took from September 1944 to April 1945 to clear Finland of the Germans.
It was President Mannerheim who initiated the introduction of this day, the 3rd Sunday of May, as recognition for all Finland’s fallen soldiers either in war or peacekeeping duties.
Commemoration Day is spent attending church services and laying wreaths or flowers at both war memorials and graves.
[divider]What is a flag day?[/divider]
Being a newcomer to Finland, a strange tradition stood out and bugged me to no end. Each time it happened (maybe twice a month) I referred to it as another “random Finnish flag raising day.” There seemed to be no pattern and I couldn’t find out any information as to the event triggering the spectacle.
After questioning locals and a little research, I have found out that the official term, Flag Days. Finland honors its ancestors who have contributed to their culture by giving them a flag day. It could be their birthday or another significant day depending on their achievements. On these days, of which there are 18 throughout the year, every flag pole must bear the Finnish flag. It is truly a breathtaking site to behold. Thousands of flags fly high as each building has at least one pole and many streets are lined with flags.