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Yle News explains "penkkarit": Why costumed teens in Finland toss sweets from lorries

Throwing candy from the back of trucks while in fancy dress is an important rite of passage in Finland.

Penkkarit Lappeenrannassa.
Upper secondary school students in Lappeenranta reprise well-known figures. From left, Pokémon character Pikachu, the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland and Pippi Longstocking, the red-haired star of Astrid Lindgren’s children’s series. Image: Tommi Parkkinen / Yle

New to Finland and puzzled about the sight of truckloads of young people gussied up in sometimes outrageous costumes throwing sweets at passers-by? What you're seeing is a century-old tradition known as "penkkarit" when upper secondary school seniors enjoy their last hurrah – the end of formal classes – before they take a break to prepare for their matriculation exams.

"It’s one of the greatest things to happen for upper secondary school students and the kids look forward to it. It’s a time when you can be with friends and feel free, take time to celebrate before you start thinking about your final exams," Roosa Pajunen told Yle News.

Pajunen is chair of Finland's Union of Upper Secondary School Students and not too long ago, she too could be seen riding around in a flat-bed lorry draped with a witty banner and distributing candy to onlookers.

Abeja Mikkelissä
Pop culture gets a tongue-in-cheek treatment as these Mikkeli students reference their impending liberation from high school in a nod to the film “Fifty Shades Freed”. Image: Riina Kasurinen/Yle

The penkkarit celebrations took off after 1919, when the first set of matriculation exams were held at the University of Helsinki. Back then, students from all over the country travelled to the capital for the exam. However in the 1920s local schools began to administer the exams, with students cloistering themselves away to prepare for the tests.

Penkkarit Lappeenrannassa.
The Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf, Batman’s nemesis the Joker and Winnie the Pooh rub shoulders in Lappeenranta. Image: Tommi Parkkinen / Yle

After starting out as sleigh rides in the early years of the tradition, the milestone has morphed into today’s high-spirited processions. Typically, the graduating students – known as "abiturientit" in Finnish or more commonly "abit" – select a theme for their costumes and banners, which range from witty one-liners to more serious social or political commentary.

More fun, less booze

According to Pajunen, the tradition has held strong over the years, although it's possible to observe some changes in how young people today celebrate the occasion.

"I have heard that in the past some of the kids used alcohol. When I had my penkkarit we didn’t have alcohol but I’ve heard stories about others who have. At the end of the day they decide what to do, but I’d like it to be a safe space for everyone," she noted

.

Penkkarit, Sipoo
Students from Sipoo run with a clever take on the hit Daft Punk-Pharrell Williams collaboration, “Get Lucky”. “Lakki” refers to the white cap that students receive when they graduate. Image: Yle / Lone Widestam

Pajunen's comments jibe with findings reported by the public health watchdog THL, which showed that young people in Finland are increasingly corking the bottle. Meanwhile some school officials were said to be taking extra precautions to ensure no disruptions during the day.

Last week taboid Iltalehti reported that one school in Vaasa had cautioned seniors against using ski masks or balaclavas or carrying toy guns during the festivities. The school said the measure was a safety precaution. In Porvoo, upper secondary school students told Yle News about security checks that included an airport-style "pat down" on Thursday morning.

The day’s events include other high jinks such as parodying teachers and other members of staff, producing films and sketches about them, handing out outrageous awards to students and staff, and of course throwing, tossing or pelting sweets at younger students and passers-by.

However, like their predecessors of a century ago, once the high-spirited activities are over students then retreat for a month-long period of preparation for the rigours of their matriculation exams. Up to last year, the "penkkarit" took to city streets across the country more or less on the same day, however new education reforms that took effect this year mean that schools can decide independently when their seniors will hold their pre-matriculation parades.

Seniors’ ball ushers in new guard

As the graduating seniors exit the school stage, second-year pupils begin gearing up to assume their role as the school’s oldest students at the top of the food chain.

Penkkarit Lappeenrannassa.
Elvis and an astronaut in Lappeenranta. Image: Tommi Parkkinen / Yle

They mark this rite of passage with a formal performance of traditional ballroom dances. In upper secondary schools across the country, these seniors-in-waiting don ball gowns and tuxedos for the evening of dance performances, with the effort, expense and overall look of the participants becoming increasingly reminiscent of American proms.

It can be a costly affair for many, although recent years have seen many enterprising and consumption-conscious young people renting or re-purposing clothing for the occasion.

Vanhat tanssivat Jyväskylän Lyseon lukiossa.
Image: Petri Aaltonen / Yle

Nowadays, the dance routine includes an "oma tanssi" or independently-choreographed segment that incorporates a medley of contemporary dance moves set to current popular music.

The tradition of the seniors' ball apparently emerged in Helsinki in between 1920 and 1930, when students hatched the idea themselves.

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