Finland – Land of the Midnight Sun
If you look at Finland on a map, you will notice that it is the easternmost of the three ‘Scandinavian’ countries, which look a bit like three fingers pointing downwards. The shape of Finland is generally thought to be that of a woman pointing, although I can’t help but see it as a seated bunny rabbit with lopsided ears. I should probably say at the outset that although geographically Finland is part of what most people would think of as Scandinavian, they aren’t in fact usually considered part of Scandinavia. Scandinavia is a historic and cultural term binding together Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Finland, along with the proper Scandinavian countries, is a Nordic state. The far north of Finland is inside the arctic circle, and this area is known as the Land of the Midnight Sun, because in the summer months it is summer for all of the day and night, even at midnight. Conversely in winter, it is dark all the time. At Lake Inari for instance, the sun never sets between May 23rd and July 19th. Between December 4th and January 8th, the sun never rises. It’s also rather cold, with average lows in January of 19 degrees below freezing, and between November and early June it is completely frozen over.
Before we more into what Finland is like, here’s a few facts.
Finland is actually the Swedish name for the country. Finns themselves call their country Suomi.
Finland is the biggest drinker of coffee per person than any other country, each consuming on average 2.7 cups a day.
Finns are generally considered to have one of the best educational systems in the world
Finland has the most islands and the most lakes of any country in the world – approximately 180,000 of each.
Finland is the most sparsely populated country in the European Union, with only 16 people per km2
History of Finland
Finland has throughout its history been dominated by its two powerful neighbours – Sweden to the west and Russia to the east, and until it achieved independence in 1918 it was ruled by one or the other of them. During World War II, it was invaded by both Germany and Russia, and struggled to maintain its independence. During the Cold War, Finland managed to maintain its neutrality and sided neither with the Soviet Union nor NATO allies. As such, it was an important buffer between East and West, however it had to be very careful not to antagonise the Russians. After the end of the Cold War, it wholeheartedly threw in its lot with the European Union, joining in 1994 and then joining the Euro in 1999.
It is difficult to get across just how sparsely populated Finland is. It is two and a half times the size of England, but has just a tenth of the population. What’s more, the majority of the population live in the southern half of the country, making the north even more empty. What Finland lacks in population however, it makes up for in wonderful wildlife. The countryside of Finland is home to bears, wolves, reindeer, ermine and many other creatures.
The wildlife and countryside isn’t just the home of animals however, it is enjoyed by the Finns probably to a greater extent than most other countries. In Finland there is the concept of ‘Everyman’s Right’, and it gives everyone the right to roam over the Finnish countryside, no matter who owns the land. They can also collect natural produce anywhere, and even fish with a rod and line with no need for permission or a licence. The countryside really is everyone’s to enjoy, a wonderful concept.
It might be cold in the wintertime, but when the weather warms up Finns really take advantage of it, particularly when it comes to their summer holidays. The idea of the ‘summer cottage’ is not exclusive to Finland, but they have taken to it with gusto. It is estimated that half of families in Finland have their own holiday home in the countryside, others rent or borrow a cottage. Vacationing at the summer cottage in Finland is all about getting away from it all, enjoying the peace and quiet and not being busy. Finns also benefit from the longer days in the summer, which can be very long – in the far north of the country it is sunny at midnight for several months of the year – perfect for late night games. Of course that means that in the wintertime it is dark and cold all day in some places, but at least then they can take refuge in the warmth of the sauna, a ubiquitous Finnish invention that they have gifted to the world.
Can you name any famous Finns? I bet you know at least one, every child does after all. Yes, that’s right, Santa Claus comes from Lapland in the north of Finland. He and his elves live in the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, and children from all over the world write to him here – he receives about 700,000 letters every year. According to head elf Katja Tervonen, they answer all letters sent to Father Christmas as long as they include a clearly readable address, and all letters have a special stamp on them. If you are wanting to write to Father Christmas this year, the address to write to is:
Santa Claus’s Main Post Office
You never know, if you are good this year perhaps Santa will bring you what you ask for this year.
In picking a place in Finland, I’m immediately drawn towards the largely unpopulated north rather than the area around Helsinki where most of Finns live. I’m not sure why, it just somehow seems more mysterious and alluring, a place very different from any that I know. I asked a Finnish resident for any Finland recommendations and they said they loved visiting Lake Inari, a large lake in Lapland that is frozen half the year, and incredibly beautiful in both summer and winter. As well as being Finland’s third biggest lake, Inari gives its name to the area around the lake as well as the town of Inari. So I decided that Inari was the place to pick.
I am writing this article on May 21st, which coincidentally, is an important date in Inari’s calendar. Early this morning, soon after midnight, the sun rose in the sky. It won’t set again for another 62 days, until Friday 22nd July. It will be daylight and – barring cloud cover – sunny for 24 hours a day for the next couple of months. As wonderful as this might sound – though no doubt opinions on this will vary – there is a payoff. Between 1 December and 9th January the sun will not rise at all, giving 24 hours of night-time. So what’s the weather like in Inari? In July, there are average highs of 19 degrees Celsius which isn’t bad, though in January and February temperatures average between minus 7 and minus 17, so best to wrap up warm.
Winter around Inari is spectacular – herds of reindeer can be seen wandering over the fells and through the forests in the area, and the beautiful but elusive aurora borealis can be seen in all its glory – eerie and ethereal green lights in the sky, with reds and yellows, purples and pinks also putting in an appearance. Lake Inari is frozen over throughout winter, and you can walk on the ice, don a pair of ice skates or even ride in a snowmobile. The Inari region is not exactly packed with people, having a population density of 0.45 people per square kilometre so you can really get a feel for the wilds out here and not keep bumping in to people! This area is the home of the indigenous Sami people, and the centre of its culture, though the Sami area found in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Russia and the USA (Alaska) as well. There is the Siida museum in Inari which shows visitors all about the Sami and their culture, as well as giving people the chance to buy their handicrafts. There is also the Sami Cultural Centre Sajos which as well as offering lots of Sami crafts for sale is the home of the Finnish Sami parliament! If you want something a bit more active to do, then there’s lots of outdoor pursuits you can do, including ice fishing, cross country ski-ing and snowshoeing tours!
If you want to stay over in Inari – and lets face it, you are probably not going to go all the way up here and back in a day – then there isn’t a massive choice of hotels, but you probably want to stay at the Tradition Hotel Kultahovi. They have a channel on the hotel room televisions for watching out for the Northern Lights, so you don’t have to wait in the cold watching for them. If you see them on the television, you can dash out and watch them by the river. This seems eminently sensible to me.
If you have been enchanted by the thoughts of reindeer, snowshoeing and the Northern Lights, then the good news it that you can fly to nearby Ivalo which has regular flights from Helsinki, after which it is only 30 minutes drive from Inari.
More about Finland
There’s lots more interesting things to tell you about Finland – to find out more, read my other articles
Finland and the Finnish Sauna – Read about Finland’s obsession with the sauna, its history and you can even learn why the sauna keeps the devil away!
Schools in Finland – Why Finnish teaching is the best in the world
Food in Finland – Find out more about food and foraging in Finland