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. 



Ninnu Koskenalho on AntroBlogin toinen päätoimittaja ja perustaja, ja valtiotieteiden maisteri sosiaali- ja kulttuuriantropologiasta. Ninnu työskentelee Helsingin yliopistolla Crosslocations-tutkimushankkeen projektikoordinaattorina sekä tiedeviestinnän konsulttitehtävissä, ja pohtii mieluusti avaruusmatkailua ja ihmismielen notkeutta.