Monday, December 12

Blue and White Meet Stars and Stripes

A traditional national costume at
the Finnish Independence Day celebration

In a city like New York, the self-proclaimed cultural melting pot, trying to stay true to one’s roots can feel like a futile effort. For residents of a country the size of Finland - with only a little five million residents - finding countrymen abroad is a challenge of its own. On December 6th, Finns gathered to celebrate their country’s 94th Independence Day at the Park Avenue United Methodist Church in Manhattan. The annual event is a celebration truly reflective of its origins; a distinctly introverted and peaceful country. Finns choose to pay tribute to their homeland in a quiet and reflective manner, traditionally lighting two candles in every window of their houses at 6PM and watching the annual president’s reception on television - habits that may seem strange and somber to those who are not familiar with the secluded Northern country.
For some of the over 3,000 first and second generation Finns living in the Greater New York area, the celebrations at the Park Avenue Methodist Church serve as a vital connection to their roots - even when home is half a world away. This year’s attendees, many of them in traditional national costumes, quietly listened to speeches held by Ambassador Liisa Jolkkonen and Lieutenant Colonel Esa Valonen. The afternoon came to an appropriate end as pianist Kalle Toivio performed the brooding Finlandia by Jean Sibelius.

Park Avenue Methodist Church
For one of New York’s Finns, bringing a piece of home to the city is more than just an attempt to stay in touch with one’s origins. Jaana Rehnström moved to New York from Helsinki in 1982 for a common reason - love. Dr. Rehnström, a practicing gynecologist who has two children with her American husband, is also the president of the Finland Center Foundation. The foundation describes itself as “the meeting point of Finnish and American culture, commerce and community”. “Our goal is to advance Finnish values and culture in New York City,” Rehnström says. “There is a lot of activity within the community, but no clear meeting point.” The past few decades have seen a change in Finnish immigrants; instead of blue collar workers who used to travel to America for jobs, these days the ones who take the leap across the pond are often students or newlyweds. “In a lot of cases, a Finn marries an American and it’s very important for them to raise their children to speak Finnish as well as English - which can be a challenge,” Rehnström says. “Families like that often seek out Finnish schools and some sort of network to keep their Finnish side alive.”

The Finland Center Foundation host various events throughout the year and, while currently located at the Salmagundi Club on Fifth Avenue, wish to get their own space soon. “Finnish activity in the city is scattered,” Jaana Rehnström says, “and we attempt to gather everyone under the same roof, both figuratively and physically speaking.” At the Independence Day celebrations, the attempt was successful in both ways. As the imposing notes of the national anthem filled the Upper East Side church, the attendees belted them out proudly in unison.

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