Buffeted by its neighbours for centuries and absorbing influences from west, east and south, Finnish culture as a distinct identity was only born in the 19th century: "we are not Swedes, and we do not wish to become Russian, so let us be Finns."
The Finnish founding myth and national epic is the Kalevala, a collection of old Karelian stories and poems collated in 1835 that recounts the creation of the world and the adventures of Väinämöinen, a shamanistic hero with magical powers. Kalevalan themes such as the Sampo, a mythical cornucopia, have been a major inspiration for Finnish artists, and figures, scenes, and concepts from the epic continue to colour their works.
While one of the essential preconditions for having full civil rights in the land of Finland used to be a membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in which most Catholic traditions have been preserved, doctrines are pronouncedly Christocentric and still formally based on the Book of Concord only, Finland's constitution has guaranteed full freedom of religion since 1923. Today, the everyday observance of the great majority is lax at best or virtually non-existent even among some of the ministry! and the membership of the Lutheran church has been in a sharp decline since the 1960's. Consequently, tourists and visitors do wisely by exercising a certain tact and being conscious of the fact that topics concerning religious practice and personal faith are considered a strictly private matter by most Finns. There is every likelihood that faith-related questions are found either intrusive or baffling in most cases. Politics and religion are differentiated in the Finnish debate to the extent that any participant is expected not to highlight their personal beliefs.
Finns share most virtues and downsides of their Scandinavian neighbours. These include uncompromising work ethic and an inclusive notion of equality. It became the second country after New Zealand that granted the universal suffrage. Likewise, Finland is regularly top-ranked in the list of the least corrupted countries of Transparency International. By courtesy of its internationally vaunted tuitionless education system as well as comprehensive public health care and welfare system, Finland has acquired a worldwide reputation for one of the most advanced countries in the world. Meanwhile, the country is plagued by similar problems peculiar to Nordic welfare states that include the homogeneity of the ageing population and comparatively high rates of alcoholism, depression, social exclusion and suicide. However, the distinctive character of the Finns is often summed up with the word sisu, a mixture of admirable perseverance and pig-headed stubbornness in the face of adversity.
The foundation of the Finnish music culture and music education has been built mainly on the life work of a classical composer Jean Sibelius whose symphonies are regularly played by the most esteemed symphony orchestras of the world and whose name is borne by Sibelius Academy, Finland's top music institution. Composers of the modern classical music Kaija Saariaho, Magnus Lindberg, Esa-Pekka Salonen etc. and the Finnish electronic music Pan Sonic, Darude, Rinneradio, Jimi Tenor, Jori Hulkkonen etc. are held in great reverence among experts and enthusiasts. Additionally, some Finnish mainstream heavy metal and pop Children of Bodom, Nightwish, HIM, The Rasmus, Bombfunk MC have garnered global acclaim. Conspicuous metal band Lordi known for its latex monster outfit became an international sensation overnight by winning Eurovision Song Contest in 2006.
In the other arts, Finland has produced noted architect and designer Alvar Aalto, authors Mika Waltari The Egyptian, Väinö Linna The Unknown Soldier and Tove Jansson The Moomins and painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela, known for his Kalevala illustrations.
Finland has a 5.5% Swedish-speaking minority and is officially a bilingual country, so maps nearly always bear both Finnish and Swedish names for, e.g., cities and towns. For example, Turku and Åbo are the same city, even though the names differ totally. Roads can be especially confusing: what first appears on a map to be a road that changes its name is, in most cases, one road with two names. This is common in the Swedish-speaking areas on the southern and western coasts, whereas inland Swedish names are far less common. In anywhere outside bilingual areas and the far north Lapland of Finland you'll never see Swedish, and a bilingual sign is extremely rare; you will, occasionally, see signage in Sámi instead. Google Maps, in particular, seems to select the language randomly, even though the Swedish names are extremely rarely used in practice in most places.
Finns aren't typically very hot on big public carnivals; most holidays are spent at home with family. The most notable exception is Vappu on 1 May, as thousands of people mostly the young ones fill the streets. Important holidays and similar happenings include:
New Year's DayUudenvuodenpäivä, 1 January.
EpiphanyLoppiainen, 6 January.
EasterPääsiäinen, variable dates, Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays. Tied to this are laskiainen 40 days before Easter, nominally a holy day that kicks off the Lent, practically a time for children and university students to go sliding down snowy slopes, and Ascension Day helatorstai 40 days after, just another day for the shops to be closed.
Walpurgis Nightor more often Vappu, 1 May, although festivities start the day before Vappuaatto. A spring festival that coincides with May Day. Originally a pagan tradition that coincides with the more recent workers' celebration, it has become a giant festival for students, who wear colourful signature overalls and roam the streets. Many people also use their white student caps between 18:00 on 30 April and the end of 1 May. The following day, people gather to nurse their hangovers at open-air picnics, even if it's raining sleet.
Midsummer FestivalJuhannus, the Saturday in the period 20-26 June. Held to celebrate the summer solstice, with plenty of bonfires, drinking and general merrymaking. Cities become almost empty as people rush to their summer cottages. It might be a good idea to visit one of the bigger cities just for the eerie feeling of an empty city.
Independence DayItsenäisyyspäivä, 6 December. A fairly sombre celebration of Finland's independence from Russia. The President holds a ball for the important people e.g. MPs, diplomats, and merited Finnish sportspeople and artists.
Little ChristmasPikkujoulu, people go pub crawling with their workmates throughout December. Not an official holiday, just a Viking-strength version of an office Christmas party.
ChristmasJoulu, 24-26 December. The biggest holiday of the year, when pretty much everything closes for three days. Santa Joulupukki comes on Christmas Eve on 24 December, ham is eaten and everyone goes to sauna.
New Year's EveUudenvuodenaatto, 31 December. Fireworks time!
Typical vacation time is in July, unlike elsewhere in Europe, where it is in August. People generally start their summer holidays around Midsummer. During these days, cities are likely to be less populated, as Finns head for their summer cottages. Schoolchildren start their summer holidays in the beginning of June.
Not much is known about Finland's early history, with archaeologists still debating when and where a tribe of Finno-Ugric speakers cropped up. Roman historian Tacitus mentions a tribe primitive and savage Fenni in 100AD and even the Vikings chose not to settle, trading and plundering along the coasts.
In the mid-1150s Sweden started out to conquer and Christianize the Finnish pagans in earnest, with Birger Jarl incorporating most of the country into Sweden in 1249. Finland stayed an integral part of Sweden until the 19th century, although there was near-constant warfare with Russia on the eastern border and two brief occupations. After Sweden's final disastrous defeat in the Finnish War of 1808-1809, Finland became in 1809 an autonomous grand duchy under Russian rule.
Russian rule alternated between tolerance and repression and there was already a significant independence movement when Russia plunged into revolutionary chaos in 1917. Parliament seized the chance and declared independence in December, quickly gaining Soviet assent, but the country promptly plunged into a brief but bitter civil war between the conservative Whites and the socialist Reds, eventually won by the Whites.
During World War II, Finland was attacked by the Soviet Union in the Winter War, but fought them to a standstill that saw the USSR conquer 12% of Finnish territory. Finland then allied with Germany in an unsuccessful attempt to repel the Soviets and regain the lost territory, was defeated and, as a condition for peace, had to turn against Germany instead. Thus Finland fought three separate wars during World War II. In the end, Finland lost much of Karelia and Finland's second city Vyborg, but Soviets paid a heavy price for them with over 300,000 dead.
After the war, Finland lay in the grey zone between the Western countries and the Soviet Union. The Finno-Soviet Pact of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance committed Finland to resist armed attacks by "Germany or its allies" read: the West, but also allowed Finland to stay neutral in the Cold War and avoid a Communist government or Warsaw Pact membership. In politics, there was a tendency of avoiding any policies and statements that could be interpreted as anti-Soviet. This balancing act of Finlandization was humorously defined as "the art of bowing to the East without mooning the West". Despite close relations with the Soviet Union, Finland managed to retain democratic multi-party elections and remained a Western European market economy, building close ties with its Nordic neighbours. While there were some tense moments, Finland pulled it off: in the subsequent half century, the country made a remarkable transformation from a farm/forest economy to a diversified modern industrial economy featuring high-tech giants like Nokia, and per capita income is now in the top 15 of the world.
After the implosion of the USSR, Finland joined the European Union in 1995, and was the only Nordic state to join the euro system at its initiation in January 1999.
See also Winter in Scandinavia.
Finland has a cold but temperate climate, which is actually comparatively mild for the latitude because of the moderating influence of the Gulf Stream. Winter, however, is just as dark as everywhere in these latitudes, and temperatures can very rarely reach -30°C in the south and even dip below -40°C in the north. The brief Finnish summer is considerably more pleasant, with temperatures around 20-23°C on sunny days rarely closer to 30°C, and is generally the best time of year to visit. July is the warmest month. Early spring March-April is when the snow starts to melt and Finns like to head north for skiing and winter sports, while the transition from fall to winter in October-December — wet and dark— is the least pleasant time to visit. The southern coast where Helsinki and Turku are located is not really a winter destination, because there is no guarantee of snow even in January or February.
Due to the extreme latitude, northern parts of Finland experiences the famous Midnight Sun near the summer solstice, when if above the Arctic Circle the sun never sets during the night and even in southern Finland it never really gets dark. The flip side of the coin is the Arctic Night kaamos in the winter, when the sun never comes up at all in the North. In the South, daylight is limited to a few pitiful hours with the sun just barely climbing over the trees before it heads down again.
Unlike craggy Norway and Sweden, Finland consists mostly of low, flat to rolling plains interspersed with lakes and low hills, with mountains of a sort only in the extreme north, while Finland's highest point, Mount Halti, rises only to a modest 1,328m. Finland has 187,888 lakes according to the Geological Survey of Finland, making the moniker Land of a Thousand Lakes actually an underestimation. Along the coast and in the lakes are—according to another estimate—179,584 islands, making the country an excellent boating destination as well.
Finland is not located on the Scandinavian peninsula, so despite many cultural and historical links, it is technically not a part of Scandinavia. Even Finns rarely bother to make the distinction, but a more correct term that includes Finland is the "Nordic countries" Pohjoismaat. Still, the capital, Helsinki, has a lot of Scandinavian features, especially when it comes to the architecture of the downtown, and another Scandinavian language, Swedish, is one of the two official languages of the country.