When New Year’s Eve was Overshadowed by April 4

5 minute read

The time: 11:59 pm. The date: April 4, 1932. The Place: all throughout Finland. The Event: What could be said to be one of the most boisterous countdowns in history, even though it didn’t happen on New Year’s Eve.

Although famous for its glamorous speakeasies and infamous bootleggers, the United Sates was not the only country to experiment with prohibition in the early twentieth century. Canada made it’s own attempts to ban the consumption of alcohol as well, and so did the newly formed Soviet Union and the majority of the Baltic States. Amongst the most enthusiastic of these anti-alcohol countries was Finland, famous for its wonderful saunas and difficult language.

Unlike other European nations, Finland had never had a strong drinking culture. Beer had long been a staple in the Nordic country and in the 18th century home-distilled spirits became increasingly popular, but a true Finn would almost never enjoy his meals with a nice glass of wine or sherry. In fact, leading up to the government establishment of the Prohibition Act in June 1919, which banned all drinks with an alcohol content above two percent, annual Finnish consumption of alcohol was estimated to be less than 0.5 liters per person. This made Finland one of the driest countries in all of Europe.

But per capita dryness didn’t mean drinking wasn’t a problem. Although the majority of the Finnish population abstained from alcohol, the country also had one of the highest incidences of alcoholism in the world. Historians attribute this juxtaposition to the huge popularity of at-home distillation in the early 19th century as well as “a cultural appreciation for drinking to intoxication.” Even today, according to the World Health Organization, almost 50% of men in the country participate in “heavy episodic drinking,” meaning Friday and Saturday nights in Helsinki can get a bit sloppy.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that, before the Prohibition Act was passed, four previous attempts had been made at banning alcohol. Each proved unsuccessful until 1919, when one of the first moves the country made following its independence from Russia was to sober itself up.

The results of Prohibition in Finland were not what the law’s backers hoped for. Thanks to a long established tradition of making spirits at home, bootleggers and speakeasies flourished the moment alcohol sales were banned. An English writer visiting Finland during Prohibition recalled sitting in a café, sipping vodka from a tea cup refilled by waiters with tea pots and visiting a wildly popular underground liquor store on one of the islands just outside Helsinki. Every year almost 100,000 people were arrested in violation of the Prohibition Act. Despite Dry agents’ constant battles with bootleggers, many of which cost human lives, the move to produce a drier Finland created an even wetter one: alcohol consumption for the entire nation shot up to over a liter per capita over the course of prohibition.

Aware that their great experiment was failing extraordinarily, in 1931 the Finnish Diet called for a popular referendum on whether or not to continue the Prohibition Act. On Dec. 29 and 30 of that year, the Finnish people went to the polls. The result was overwhelming: 70% of voters wanted to end the alcohol ban.

Prohibitionists in the United States were understandably upset at seeing the last of the other Dry republics fall—the rest of the Nordic states had long abandoned their likewise-failing Prohibition experiments—but Finns were jubilant. “The Finnish home has been saved!” declared a professor and former Dry advocate the moment the poll’s results were announced.

Such a response was not about eagerness to drink. The end of Prohibition was anticipated to have major economic and societal benefits. “Finland could not afford to leave her liquor untaxed and her liquor trade in the hands of professional criminals,” explained the suave Mr. Risto Ryti, Governor of the Bank of Finland. Prohibition had not only brought about a higher drinking rate, but also a higher incidence of murder and the act, according to at least one Minister, was “enticing large sections of the populace into lawlessness.

Seeing the overwhelming benefits of the repeal, the government complied with the results of the referendum and within a few months had established a national alcohol policy, equipped with a price list and its own “Alko” stores licensed to sell booze. On New Year’s Eve of 1931, despite early indications that Prohibition was soon to be repealed, the celebrations were marked by the traditional fire works and melting of tin, the shape of which can tell the future, according to Finnish tradition.

Come midnight on April 4, 1932, the celebrations would be a whole other story. With legal alcohol sales beginning the next day, Finns began their “two-day carnival” in honor of booze. On a Monday night in the capital, restaurants, hotels, and dance halls were packed with revelers celebrating the returned legality of the drink. The next morning. lines appeared at dawn outside government-run liquor stores. Such establishments in Helsinki did some $35,000 in sales from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. on their first day open, the equivalent of $606,300 in today’s currency.

Despite police fears, it was reported that arrests for intoxication were no higher than usual and that prices were outstandingly reasonable. It seems the return to a wet nation was good for the country and, as one newspaperman reported, “it is impossible to discover a single outstanding personality in Finland who does not welcome the passing of the law.”

Emelyn Rude is a food historian and the author of Tastes Like Chicken, available in August of 2016.

Read TIME’s original coverage of the end of Prohibition in Finland, here in the TIME Vault: Wet Women

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