Finnish Swedish Heritage Day: what and why?

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On November 6, flags in Finland fly for the Finnish Swedish Heritage Day (Svenska Dagen, ruotsalaisuuden päivä). In this blog, we explain why the day is celebrated in Finland.

What is Finnish Swedish Heritage Day?

The Finnish Swedish Heritage Day celebrates the Swedish-speaking population of Finland and their culture. Also, it celebrates the bilingualism of Finland. 

Currently, about 5.2 % of the population speak Swedish as their mother tongue, and Swedish is one of the two official languages of the country. It is spoken mostly in the coastal regions as well as in the largest cities.

The newly established Swedish People’s Party of Finland came up with the day in 1908. They first celebrated it on June 8 that year. The purpose of the celebration was to raise the community spirit of Swedish speakers in Finland. 

Later, the day was moved to November 6 which is the date on which King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden was killed in 1632 in the battle of Lützen.  In Sweden, this day is celebrated as Gustav Adolf’s Day. 

The day is visible particularly in Swedish-speaking schools but there are also national celebrations. It became an official flag day in 1979.

Let’s now take a short tour of history and talk about the Swedish language in Finland and the development of Finnish Swedish identity in Finland. 

In the sections below I rely heavily on a recent dissertation by Maaria Saaristo.

Early history of the Swedish language in Finland

The Swedish language has a long history on this side of the Baltic Sea. That history is very much connected to the political history of this corner of the world. First to the Swedish imperial power, and then later to Russian dominance over Finland and the subsequent Finnish national awakening. 

During the Swedish era, the Swedish speaking population of current Finland comprised two general groups. 

One group was the Swedish-speaking peasantry living in the coastal regions of Finland. They have their roots in the unknown number of farmers and large-scale landowners who moved from the Swedish side of the Gulf of Bothnia to the Finnish side in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. 

The other group was the elites who used Swedish as the language of government. Their background was varied. Some were native Finnish speakers who adopted Swedish as their main language. Some were native Swedish speakers that had migrated to Finland from Sweden. Others were migrants from the Baltic region whose native language was not originally Swedish. They, like some native Finnish speakers, adopted Swedish as their new language. 

During the Swedish era, there really wasn’t a Swedish Finnish identity. Finland was, after all, a part of the Swedish kingdom with Swedish laws, Swedish rule, and Swedish administration. All done in Swedish. That changed in 1809. 

Nationalist awakening in the 19th century

After Finland became a part of the Russian empire as a Grand Duchy in 1809, Swedish continued to be the language of governance within Finland. With St. Petersburg, communication was handled in French or German. 

The separation from the Swedish kingdom meant, however, that the Swedish speakers in Finland no longer shared the language of the majority. They also resisted the later push to use Russian as the language of government within Finland. Thus a part of the Finnish scholarly elite turned to the Finnish language as a source for national unity.

We’ve described in some of our earlier blogs (about Runeberg’s Day and the Kalevala) how the pan-European nationalist awakening of the 1800s affected this process.

Initially, intellectuals involved in this nation-building did not see this push to promote Finnish as completely excluding or replacing Swedish. Towards the latter half of the 19th century, this changed. There emerged a clear split between those that advocated for the complete replacement of Swedish with Finnish and those who saw that it was not necessary for Swedish speakers to abandon their language in order to be Finnish. 

Proponents of this latter view believed that maintaining a Swedish cultural heritage in Finland was important for the development of Finnish society. They also saw the Swedish language and culture as a bridge between Finland, Scandinavia, and Western civilization in general. 

Initially, however, they did not connect the Swedish language to an idea of Swedish speakers in Finland forming a Swedish nationality separate from the Finnish nationality. After all, the Swedish speaking elites in Finland were quite a heterogeneous group. They also saw themselves as different from the Swedish speaking peasantry. 

Axel Olof Freudenthal, however, began arguing at the end of the 1850s that all Swedish speakers in Finland constituted a group of their own, the Swedish population of Finland. As such, they were separate from Finnish speaking Finns. 

This sparked a movement very similar to the Finnish national movement with similar activities. 

Unification of Swedish speakers around language

As we have explained, Swedish speakers in Finland were a heterogeneous group. At least 90 % of them were peasants. They differed from the Swedish speaking elite not only by class but often also by religion and historical origin. They initially had very little contact with each other. 

Starting from the 1870s, different types of associations began closing this gap and uniting these groups around language. Their message was that instead of Finland having a heterogeneous group that merely shares a language, there actually is a group that has a common language, a common past, common interests, a common culture, and a common future.

These associations collected information on local language use, folklore, sayings, customs, and traditions. They promoted Swedish language education, organized cultural events, published different types of Swedish language materials, etc. 

The same message also spread through associations originally established by the Swedish speaking peasantry for other reasons such as local youth associations. 

Towards the end of the 19th century, the so-called language question was the main organizational principle in Finnish politics. Proponents of the Swedish language and Finnish Swedish identity maintained a strong position in the Diet. They were thus able to block any initiatives they saw as harmful to their interests. This changed with the creation of the one-chamber parliament in 1906 and the first elections in 1907.

An election posted of the Swedish People's Party from 1907.
An election posted of the Swedish People’s Party from 1907.

The new Swedish People’s Party reached out to the Swedish-speaking electorate through those voluntary organizations. They argued that it was in their best interest to vote according to language. They were clearly very successful in that. About 70-80 % of the Swedish speakers voted based on language and voted for them. It was clear then that a separate Finnish Swedish identity had been born. 

Thus, if Finns can be said to have become Finns through active nation-building during the 19th century the same is true for the Finnish Swedish. For Finnish-speaking Finns, this history is reflected in Runeberg’s Day and the Kalevala Day. For Finnish Swedish, it’s reflected in the Finnish Swedish Heritage Day started in 1908. 

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