Finns commemorate the life and work of national poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg today with flags and cake – and perhaps also by picking up a book.
The poet, who lived in the 1800s, wrote the words to the Finnish national anthem, and penned some of the country’s most celebrated literary works.
Runeberg, a Swedish-speaking Finn, was born in Jakobstad and gew up in Oulu and Vaasa. He studied in Turku and later taught in Helsinki and Porvoo.
He’s perhaps best known for his poems that dealt with complex socio-political moments in Finnish history through the lens of simple characters.
Farmer Paavo tells the story of harsh famine conditions, and the dogged determination – ‘sisu’ in Finnish – to beat starvation. When smallholder Paavo finally gets a good crop, he shares it with his neighbour.
The Tales of 2nd Lieutenant Stål shows the Finnish War of the early 1800s – when Sweden lost Finland to the Russian Empire – from the perspective of a soldier and lays bare the depravation of war on all sides of the conflict.
Runeberg’s 19th century protagonists often had heroic yet simple names that supposedly reflected their honesty and valour, and these were some of the traits that lead to his work being so popular at the time, and since.
The first chapter of The Tales of 2nd Lieutenant Stål later became the national anthem; and copies of the work were given out free during the Winter War to raise patriotic spirits.
Traditionally, almond-flavoured Runeberg cake is enjoyed on the anniversary of his birthday. It was first prepared by his wife, herself an accomplished writer.
There are many landmarks around Finland to remind us of J.L. Runeberg including streets named after him or his greatest literary works. A statue of the poet in Helsinki’s Esplanadi was sculpted by his son Walter.