Saint Lucia’s Day is celebrated every year on 13 December by Finland Swedes around the country. In Helsinki, the crowning of the Lucia Maiden takes place at the Helsinki Cathedral, leading the Festival of Light in a parade through the city.
The history of Swedish-speakers in Finland goes back hundreds of years, well before Finland existed as an independent nation. The land that is now Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden from the Middle Ages until 1809. The union between Finland and Sweden came to an end at this time due to the Napoleonic wars, when Napoleon urged Russia to encourage the Swedes to join them in their fight against Britain. Tsar Alexander I obliged by conquering Finland in that year.
Swedish was therefore the de facto language of civil administration, jurisdiction and education until at least 1892, when the Finnish and Swedish languages both became official. The Finnish language was dominant by the time of Finnish independence in 1917.
To a great extent, the presence of a Swedish-speaking minority in Finland can be explained by the eastwards expansion of the Swedish realm from the 12th century onwards,” explains Adjunct Professor of European History, Charlotta Wolff, of the University of Helsinki.
The Swedish crown brought with it Swedish-speaking administrators and a language of administration that also had an impact on the Finnish population. During early modern times, Finnish clergymen, for instance, often originated from the Finnish-speaking countryside but learnt Swedish through their studies.”
The geographical proximity to Sweden has always played a role in Finnish society. “As the Swedish language remained the first language of administration until the late 19th century – and a high-status language even longer – the elites, regardless of their origins, tended to present themselves as Swedish-speaking rather than Finnish-speaking,” says Wolff. She also notes that the concept Finland-Swedishness is relatively new. “The very concept of the Finland-Swede is only 100 years old. I would prefer to present bilingualism and the western-orientation of modern Finnish culture as a happy consequence of the historical bounds with Sweden and Scandinavia, which, unfortunately, are often forgotten these days.”
The Swedish-speaking regions of Finland are divided into three main areas, plus the autonomous Åland islands (Ahvenanmaa in Finnish). The area along the south coast, running from Hangö in the south-west of the country to Strömfors in the east, is called Nyland (Uusimaa). This region includes the capital of Finland, Helsingfors (Helsinki), which is also the municipality with the largest number of Finland Swedes living in it – circa 30,000, or about six per cent of the city’s population.
Ekenäs, halfway between Helsingfors and Åbo (Turku), is probably the largest urban town in Southern Finland where one can easily survive exclusively in Swedish. Borgå (Porvoo), just east of Helsingfors, also has a significant Swedish-speaking minority of about 35 per cent, and is home to the Diocese of Borgå, to which all of the Swedish-speaking parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland belong.
Åbo, Finland’s second city and former capital, is where the second Swedish-speaking region, known as Åboland (Turunmaa), begins. It comprises Åbo (itself only 6 per cent Swedish-speaking but the seat of Åbo Akademi University the only Finland-Swedish university in the world) and the archipelago, which spreads out to the south-west, a region dominated by Swedish speakers.
Further up the coast to the north is the Österbotten region (Pohjanmaa in Finnish and Ostrobothnia in English), which ranges from Sideby to Karleby. The largest city is Vasa (Vaasa), while Jakobstad (Pietarsaari) , Karleby, Kristinestad ( Kristiinankaupunki) and Nykarleby (Uusikaarlepyy) are important regional centres. Visitors to Närpes should be warned that the town’s inhabitants are renowned for their use of an obscure and generally incomprehensible Swedish dialect.
Geographically and economically speaking, and regardless of who the inhabitants of the area are or what language they have spoken, those parts of Finland have been a natural continuation of the Swedish archipelago and Baltic sea routes, Wolff explains.
Trade networks between what are today eastern Sweden and south-western Finland developed early, centuries before the Swedish movement to southern Finland. These natural exchanges over the sea routes and between the eastern and western parts of the Swedish realm naturally contributed to the settlement of populations adopting the Swedish language along the Finnish shores. These Swedish-speaking farmers and fishermen of the archipelago have kept to these activities because they have had no reason to change or move because the archipelago has long remained a Swedish-speaking oasis.