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Finnish Independence Day and the magic of touch

Independence Day celebrations are part of many nation states’ repertoires. Among the wide variety of rituals performed on these days around the world, one of the more curious ones has citizens queuing up to touch their chosen leader.

The central part of Independence Day rituals in Finland is the ceremony of shaking hands with the president. This ceremony is the high point of an event known as Linnan juhlat, “Castle Ball”, and has been conducted almost every year since 1922. Although Finland has been a democratic state for the whole duration of its independence, from 1917, both Castle Ball and its venue, Presidentinlinna aka ”The President’s Castle” use the very monarchic symbol of castle as their identificator.

In the handshake ceremony, the acting president and their spouse receive guests in a grand hall. The power couple is, crucially, positioned on the same level as their guests. This setting is indicative of both the tiny size of the nation (5,5 million) and the culturally extremely central ideal of equality. The people are invited to visit the president in her or his residence.

Guests queue in couples for their turn to shake hands with the president. These encounters are very quick – just a handshake and a greeting. Some special guests, such as the dwindling group of WWII veterans, may also exchange short pleasantries. For others this is not appropriate behavior.

The nation state legitimizes its existence in Independence Day celebrations, enacting and enforcing shared values on which it is built. Touching hands with the president is a symbolic seal through which the citizens and the presidential institution, which in turn represents the nation-state, reaffirm their mutual relationship.

Although handshake is not a universal greeting, it’s a fairly equal gesture. However, in reality not anyone gets to touch the president. Invitees are carefully chosen, and mostly come from elite parts of society.

Finnish culture aims to obliterate class differences, and every year the Castle Ball also hosts some “everyday Joes”. This is probably a major reason for the ritual’s immense popular interest. About 1800 people attend the party every year. In 2018, around three million people watched the TV broadcast – which is a very Finnish yearly ritual in itself!

Both touching the president and intensely observing the act are very unique characteristics of Finnish nation-state identity building.

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