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Finland’s Independence Day gala has been celebrated in many ways and places

The glittering presidential ball, held virtually this year, has a colourful history of cancellations and relocations.

Full house during the 2019 presidential ball. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

The Independence Day ball, which usually brings thousands of guests to the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, has for decades been the most-watched media event of the year in Finland.

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President Sauli Niinistö and first lady Jenni Haukio dancing at the 2019 ball. Image: AOP

Guests have ranged from regular folks whom the president has met during tours around the country to MPs, war veterans, athletes, artists, business tycoons, diplomats, rock stars and bishops – with the media focus is usually on celebrity outfits and comments.

This year’s event, hosted by President Sauli Niinistö and first lady Jenni Haukio, was planned as a minimalist offering beginning at 7.30pm, featuring live music and interviews, open to online comment via Yle Areena.

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Refugee Woman of the Year Rand Mohamad Deeb at the 2019 reception. Image: Antti Haanpää / Yle

This is only the third time since the Second World War that the Presidential Palace has not filled with guests on 6 December 2020. However in the earlier decades of Finnish independence, the festivities were often cancelled or relocated.

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In 2013 the festivities were held at Tampere Hall. Image: Tiina Jutila / Yle

In 2013 the festivities were held at Tampere Hall while the Presidential Palace was undergoing renovation – but it has been nearly 50 years since a reception was cancelled.

The roots of the event can be traced back to a ball held during the Diet of Porvoo in 1809, the year Finland became a Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire.

A drawing of a ball at Helsinki's old Railway Station in 1863. Image: Museovirasto / Michály von Zichy

Later these balls hosted by the legislature were held at various sites in Helsinki including the old railway station, the Governor General's official residence, Smolna, and at the present-day Presidential Palace, then known as the Imperial Palace.

Finland gained independence from Russia in 1917 but the anniversary of was not celebrated in 1918 – as 6 December was not officially designated as Independence Day until the following year. The first officially recorded cancellation of an Independence Day reception was in 1926.

President Lauri Relander had begun the tradition of a large national gala the previous year, but in December 1926 was in bed with a serious case of influenza.

In 1931 the Presidential ball was cancelled because it would have been just before 70th birthday celebrations for President P E. Svinhufvud. It was celebrated with a gala on 15 December at the National Theatre, which was also the site of several public Independence Day events in other years.

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A public event at the National Theatre in 1932. Image: Aarne Pietinen / Museovirasto

In 1932 the guest of honour at the Presidential Palace gala was Swedish Prince Gustaf Adolf, father of the present Swedish monarch.

The Presidential Palace celebration was cancelled in 1933, when Finland was in the grips of economic depression, as well as during the war years of 1939-44, when Helsinki was frequently bombed.

Guests at the Turku fire brigade headquarters in 1943. Image: Aavikko / SA-kuva

In 1943 there was however a smaller-scale event in Turku, which was considered a safer location.

President Risto Ryti, Prime Minister Edwin Linkomies and others travelled by train to Turku. A public event was held at the fire brigade headquarters, followed by a banquet at the Seurahuone Hotel.

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Crowds outside Turku Railway Station ahead of the 1943 reception. Image: Aavikko / SA-kuva

The commander-in-chief of the Finnish Defence Forces, Field Marshal C.G.E. Mannerheim, was also expected, but apparently stayed away due to security concerns.

Mannerheim became President the following year, but did not host an Independence Day celebration during his term, which lasted less than two years.

In 1944 the party was cancelled due to the Lapland War between Finland and Nazi Germany, and the following December Mannerheim was ill. He stepped down a few months later.

In December 1946, his successor, J.K. Paasikivi, hosted the reception. He too had to cancel one celebration, in 1952, due to illness.

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President Urho Kekkonen greets guests in 1957, a year after he took office. Image: Yle

He was succeeded in 1956 by Urho Kekkonen, who governed until 1982, hosting nearly two dozen Independence Day balls as Finland moved into the television age.

In 1972 the Palace was under renovation, so the festivities were held at Finlandia Hall, which had just been completed the year before. In 1974 the gala was cancelled as the president’s wife, Sylvi Kekkonen, had died just four days earlier.

Seven years later, in 1981, Urho Kekkonen was seriously ill, and had already said he would step down. The celebration was held anyway at Finlandia Hall, with welcomed by Deputy Prime Minister Eino Uusitalo. Among the guests was Prime Minister Mauno Koivisto, who was already standing in for Kekkonen and would host the following gala himself as president.

That began more than three decades of traditional Presidential Palace balls under presidents Koivisto, Martti Ahtisaari and Tarja Halonen – until President Sauli Niinistö’s second Independence Day, when the celebration was held in Tampere, and this year’s exceptional, trimmed-down event.

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