When the switch is turned to flood the Government Palace with light at 5 pm on Independence Day, 6 December, Urpo Nissinen, 66, will have been at work for ten hours straight. He will have hanged into his uniform, pinned three medals to his chest, supervised the erection of barriers in front of Helsinki Cathedral and posted staff at the front doors and the crypts of the church, opened the church doors for guests, held a roll call at the Government Palace for his forty-member team leaving for the Presidential Palace and sent them off to “shepherd the guests”.
Nissinen has had the plan for the illuminations of the Government Palace ready for a long time. The windowsills were cleared and work on the lights began a week before Independence Day. The Suomi 100 logo has been projected on the facade for some time already.
The candles were carried down from the attic, where they had been gathering dust for the past year, and dusted. There are so many candles that just bringing them downstairs could easily take the whole day.
“I remember running up to the attic to get candles when I was young. It wasn’t the tidiest of jobs,” says Nissinen, who has been responsible for lights at the Government Palace since 1972.
During his time, the candelabras have been changed four times. “The oldest I’ve seen were from the 50s.”
They had a white tub as the candle and the bulb was screwed into a Bakelite core. The legs were bevelled. The current metal ones are from the 90s.
“Luckily we don’t have to turn on each candle separately,” Nissinen says. That took four men running up and down the corridors of the huge building.
People gather on Senate Square to watch
Nowadays the lamps are all under a single switch and go on at the same time. Four men are still required, however. At two o’clock in the afternoon they gather to check the candles and practice once or twice. At 5 pm the candles will come on, to the delight of the people gathering in Senate Square.
“We stick to the plan. People want the candles to come on at the right time,” Nissinen says.
The same four people keep watch until ten in the evening to make sure that there are two candles in every window.
Urpo Nissinen will continue past midnight, making sure his team at the Presidential Palace is at its posts. These head attendants, administrative officials and supervisors guide the guests to the right places.
Some of my team work as attendants, some in the cloakrooms, others move furniture or help guests at the doors,” Nissinen says.
Before he leaves to go home, he checks that everything is in order at the main entrance. Then he will get in his car for the second-to-last time on the night following Independence Day in the courtyard of the Government Palace. In a little over a year, the man, who came to the Government Palace at the age of 22, will finally retire, at the age of 68.
So it is Independence Day illuminations once more for him.
Why two candles?
There are several explanations for the tradition of two candles. Some say it dates back to when Finland was part of Sweden when candles were lit in windows on the anniversaries of the royal family or when a royal was visiting. During the period of autonomy, candles were lit to celebrate the Czar and his family. The Jaeger Movement also had a custom of lighting two candles in the window of a safehouse from where a young man travelling to Germany for training as a jaeger could safely spend the night.
Candles as an Independence Day custom became popular in 1927 when the Itsenäisyyden liitto association encouraged people to place candles in their window on Independence Day from 6 to 9 pm. Initially, this custom was adopted by supporters of conservative parties in cities and towns. By the 1960s, the custom had spread to most people’s homes.