The first known "Flag of Finland" was presented in 1848, along with the national anthem Maamme. Its motif was the coat of arms of Finland, surrounded by laurel leaves, on a white flag.
The current blue-crossed design was first used in Finland by Nyländska Jaktklubben, a yacht club founded in Helsinki in 1861. In addition to the blue cross on the white background, the yacht club flag had the crowned arms of the province of Uusimaa within two crossed branches in the upper hoist quarter. Except for the position of the cross, the flag was similar to the flag of the St. Petersburg Yacht Club, founded the previous year. The design can be traced to the Russian Navy ensign, which has a blue cross saltire on a white background. During the Crimean War, Finnish merchant ships captured by the British-French fleet flew a flag called Flag of St. George, which was based on the Russian Customs flag. In this variant, the cross was thinner than in the modern flag, and the proportions were equal. Another blue-cross flag was made official in 1861 for private vessels.
In 1910, in connection with Russification of Finland, the Russian authorities decreed that a Russian flag was to be added to the canton. However, this was met with resistance; the flag was derided as the "slave's flag" (orjalippu), and most Finns refused to fly it. Instead, a triangular pennant without this modification was flown, thereby circumventing the decree concerning flags.
Shortly after Finland gained independence in 1917, a competition was held for the design of the Finnish flag. Several different designs were submitted. Regarding the colours, the entries fell mainly into two categories – one using the red and yellow from the Finnish coat of arms, and the other using the present blue and white colours.
One entry had the Dannebrog cross design, but with a yellow cross on a red background. Another entry had diagonal blue and white stripes, but it was criticized as being more suitable for a barber shop than a newly-independent country. Akseli Gallen-Kallela proposed a similar cross flag, but with colors inverted (white cross on blue), but this was considered too similar to the Swedish flag and particularly the Greek flag of the time. Finally, artists Eero Snellman and Bruno Tuukkanen specified the final form of the flag.
The state flag was further modified in 1922, when the coronet was removed, and again in 1978 when the shield-shaped coat of arms was changed into a rectangular shape.
Under Finnish law, the ratio of the flag is 11:18 (height:width), very close to Golden ratio. The swallow-tailed state flag is one unit longer and the tails are five units long. The cusp width of the blue cross is three units of measure, giving a ratio set of 4:3:4 (vertical) and 5:3:10 (horizontal). When flown from a flagpole, the flag is recommended to have a width equalling one sixth of the height of the pole.
The Finnish flag is used in three main variants. The usual national flag is used by all citizens, organizations and Finnish municipalities and regions. Anyone is allowed to fly the national flag whenever they deem it suitable. The rectangular state flag is used by bodies of the Finnish national and provincial governments (except the police and the district courts), by the Cathedral Chapters of the two national churches (Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox), and non-naval vessels of the state.
The swallow-tailed national flag, which is also the naval ensign, is flown by the Finnish Defence Forces. The presidential standard and the command signs of the Minister of Defence, Chief of Defence, and Commander of the Finnish Navy are flown only by the respective persons.
All public bodies as well as most private citizens and corporations fly the flag on official flag days. In addition to the official flag days, there are about ten unofficial but generally observed flag days.
The Finnish flag is raised at 8 am and lowered at sunset, however not later than 9 pm. On independence day, the flag is flown until 8 pm regardless of the dark. On the occasion of great national tragedies, the ministry of interior may recommend flying the flag at half mast throughout the country.
As a special custom in Finland, the flag is flown at Midsummer from 6 pm of Midsummer eve until 9 pm of Midsummer's day. This is done to symbolize the fact that the darkness does not come to any part of Finland during Midsummer's Night. Midsummer is also celebrated as the day of the Finnish flag.
By Finnish law it is forbidden to deface the flag or to use it in a disrespectful way. It is also illegal to remove a flag from the pole without permission. Anyone who breaks these regulations may be fined for disgracing the flag.
Finnish law also forbids the use of the presidential standard or state flag without permission, as well as the addition of any extra symbols to the flag. One may not sell a flag which has different colours or geometry than defined by the law. These are considered violations of the flag regulations and can lead to a fine.
There are also common rules on how to treat the flag respectfully. The flag must not be dirty or damaged. The flag must never touch the ground. When the flag is washed, it must be dried indoors. A worn-out flag must be disposed of by burning (though not with the intent to disgrace it), or alternatively by cutting it to pieces small enough not to be recognizable as parts of the flag. The flag must not be buried in the ground or the sea (including not throwing it into the garbage).
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