Every 5th of February, all Finland celebrates Runeberg Day. The national flag flutters in the wind and people eat Runeberg cakes, called this way because of Johan Ludvig Runeberg. But who was Runeberg? A pastry chef? Someone so sweet that Finns used his name on a pastry? Not exactly. Actually not at all.
Runeberg was a key figure to build the self-esteem and patriotism of the Finnish people much before Finland was independent, he wrote the poem that later became the national anthem of Finland and he also was the first Finnish writer to achieve a broad national significance.
Why on 5 February?
Another basic point which many don't know is why Finland commemorates the poet on 5 February. The reason comes from the first line of his biography: "Johan Ludvig Runeberg was born into a Swedish-speaking family in Pietarsaari on February 5". As simple as true. Runeberg Day celebrates the birth of the poet.
But he was born in a Swedish-speaking family. So, how did he become a crucial figure in Finnish literature?
Fueling Finnish patriotism with Swedish words
Runeberg wrote his work in his mother tongue, Swedish. According to the book 'Finland, a cultural encyclopedia', published by the Finnish Literature Society, he began as a romantic poet with his collection Dikter ('Poems', 1831), but soon became interested in the life of ordinary people. His poem Elgskyttarne ('Elk hunters on skis', 1832) presents, with idealistic realism, the life of the country people of inland Finland.
His final breakthrough was the bourgeois Biedermeier idyll Hanna (1836), but his masterpiece are the romances Fänrik Ståls signer I-II ('Tales of Ensign Stål I-II', 1848, 1860), which describe the war between Sweden and Russia in 1808-1809. They include the poem that has since become Finnish national anthem, Vårt land (Maamme, 'Our country').
Patriotism arises from love of Finnish nature. It is a holy gift from God, in defence of which soldiers have the right to die.
Ok, but who invented Runeberg cake?
Runeberg tortes can be bought these days in Finnish supermarkets. Photo: Foreigner.fi
Money was usually scarce in the Runeberg family, but fortunately for the lyric poet (and also the future of Finland), Frederika Runeberg, the wife of the writer had a lot of imagination when it came to cooking and taking advantage of what she had on hand. She used leftover bread crumbs, added punch and put fruit from the garden on the top.
Frederika Runeberg not only was the wife of the famous poet. The book 'Finnish women making religion: between ancestors and angels' describes her also as a writer and a pioneer of Finnish feminism before the organised movement of feminism. She was distinguished also for her outstanding and pioneering role in the field of historical novels. Besides, she also helped her husband to edit the Swedish-language Helsinki newspaper Helsingfors Morgonblad.
The only question left is: Would we know who Runeberg is if it was not for his wife?