Christmas Crowns Finland’s Festive Season
Christmastime can rightly be called the Finns’ most important festive period. Christmas in Finland is strongly associated with the family and relatives. Children are on holiday from school and work slows down to allow as many people as possible to celebrate Christmas fully. Generally speaking, Christmas in Finland is celebrated over three days. Christmas dinner is eaten and presents are distributed on the Eve. Christmas Day is a time of peace and quiet within the family, while on Boxing Day people feel free to celebrate outside the home.
The sights, sounds and smells of Christmas are evident from the end of November. Christmas shopping streets open with appropriate pomp, the Christmas lights go on, candles are lit, Christmas carols ring out and virtually the whole nation is invited to at least one party, at work or at home of friends, to drink the traditional mulled wine known as “glögi”.
Since the fourth century Christians have celebrated the birth of Christ on December the 25th although the New Testament gives no precise indication of a date. Earlier, Christ’s birth was celebrated on the feast of the Epiphany, a day which in the Orthodox Church still holds a position even more important that Christmas Day and commemorates the baptism of Christ. In pagan times celebrations were common in northern parts of Europe during the darkest period of winter.
Turku Announces Christmas Peace
In accordance with ancient tradition, the town clerk of the city of Turku, in southwest Finland, publicly proclaims the beginning of Christmas peace at midday on Christmas Eve. The message is broadcast to the whole nation on radio and television. The tradition of announcing peace over Christmastime is an old Nordic custom which probably dates from the Middle Ages. In pre-Christian days there were as many as 27 different ‘times of peace’ in the course of a year, including time dedicated for women, court sessions and harvesting. To this day, the idea of peace remains present in the Finnish greeting ‘Peaceful Christmas’.
The Christmas Eve dinner is the principal traditional meal of the year. Families with children very often have their meal before the arrival of Santa Claus; adults wait patiently to settle down and eat later in the evening. The most important seasonal food is Christmas ham. Turnip and potato casseroles have been part of the western Finnish festive table since the 18th century. Earlier the Christmas Eve meal also included stockfish and rice porridge, but today the various dishes are served over several days. For example, rice porridge is often served at luchtime on Christmas Eve. Culinary traditions differ between eastern and western Finland. The western Finnish traditions are influenced by Sweden and the eastern by the region of Karelia.
With growing prosperity the Christmas table has changed. Ham may be replaced by turkey. Gravlax, pickled herring, roe, vegetable salads and cold cuts are often served as hors d’oeuvres.
Pastries, too, including gingerbread and prune-filled puff pastry pies are served at Christmas. Making a gingerbread house is part of the Christmas preparations in families with children.
The highlight of Christmas in families with children is undoubtedly the arrival of Santa Claus. He resides on Korvatunturi Fell, in Finnish Lapland, where he and his wife live in peace and harmony. Most often, though, you will see him in Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle where he has his workshop. You can visit him there at any time of the year.
Joy of joys when the knock on the door is heard and the long wait is finally rewarded; Santa Claus arrives with his presents. He has come all the way from Lapland in his sledge drawn by reindeer although the children fully understand that he might have had to leave the reindeer at a few kilometres away because of the traffic. Even though Santa might not reach each and every house, presents are always given out on Christmas Eve, usually after the family dinner.
Finnish people remember their deceased on Christmas Eve by placing lighted candles on their graves. The rows and rows of candles on the graves of the war dead are a particularly moving sight.
Going to church is another Christmas tradition. Midnight services on the Eve and early-morning services on Christmas Day are the most common forms of observance.
Christmas Day in Finland is a quiet occasion when family and relations get together. The celebration of Boxing Day is more public. In the past Boxing Day was an occasion time when the young people of the family were allowed to go out for a Boxing Day sleigh ride.
From Advent to Twelfth Night
Since the end of the last century, the first of the four Advent Sundays has marked the beginning of the Christmas season. Originally, the purpose of Advent was to prepare Christendom for Christmas in the same way as Lent does before Easter.
For most Finnish people the start of Advent and the Hosannas sung in churches, schools and kindergartens are almost synonymous. Since the late 19th century Hosannas have echoed in churches throughout the country, welcoming the coming of Christ. The bestloved Christmas carols which are sung in churches during the pre-Christmas period are particularly popular.
The festive season preceding Christmas is a time of joyful preparation. The start of Advent marks the season of Christmas parties in homes, schools and at work. ‘Glögi’, the traditional mulled wine drunk at parties, is another pre-Christmas tradition.
The pre-Christmas celebrations of Swedish-speaking Finns culminate in the Lucia festival, which originated in Sweden. Lucia day is celebrated on December 13 when the Lucia maiden, selected by Finland’s main Swedish-language newspaper, Hufvudstadsbladet, makes her appearance on the steps of Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral.
New Year Charms
With Christmas over, the wait for the New Year begins. The Finnish winter prevents any big New Year celebrations in the streets. But at midnight of the New Year Eve the mayor of Helsinki wishes the townspeople a happy New Year from the steps of the Cathedral. Firework displays and rockets launched around the city add colour and a boisterous note to the occasion.
Restaurants are full of revellers seeing in the New Year. Glasses of champagne are raised in homes and restaurants. But the most important tradition of all is telling one’s future by casting molten tin into a container of water and interpreting the resultant shape of the metal.
Tin casting came to Finland through Sweden and continental Europe where lead, beeswax and eggwhite were cast as well as tin. The tradition originated in ancient Greece where the future was predicted in this way thousands of years ago.
The tin is first melted and then rapidly dropped into cold water. The tin or its shadow have been used to predict many things. There are several standard interpretations: the form of a ship promises travel, fragments of tin at the bottom of the bucket mean money, a flower shape signifies an unknown admirer.
Christmas time, and the festive season that follows, last until Twelfth Night. Twelfth Night is not observed in Finland with any specific celebrations but it is a public holiday. It concludes the Christmas festive season, it is the time to take away the Christmas tree, enjoy the last of the Christmas fare and get ready for the normal daily routine. Twelfth Night also marks the end of the commercial Christmas; decorations are taken down in the streets and the last Christmas displays are removed from the shop windows.
The Traveller’s Christmas
The Finnish Christmas has become increasingly popular with foreign visitors year by year. Especially favoured are Christmas journeys to Finnish Lapland and other parts of the country where the hotels construct the perfect Finnish Christmas complete with churches, sleigh rides, Christmas fare, Santa Claus and saunas. From Britain alone hundreds of charter flights arrive in Lapland every Christmas and groups come from all over the world.
Christmas away from home is also popular among the Finns. It gives hard-working mothers a chance to relax and enjoy Christmas prepared by someone else. And a Christmas break can also include outdoor activities such as cross-country and slalom skiing or just healthy walks in the fresh air.
Of course Lapland is not the only place to spend Christmas. All over Finland hotels, spas, farm houses and resorts build programmes around Christmas. The best way to find the Finnish Christmas atmosphere is by purchasing a Christmas holiday package for a destination of your choice. In urban areas the approach of Christmas is evident from the end of November. Shop windows take on a Christmas look, Santa Claus appears in department stores where every section reflects the festive mood. The shops are so full of goods that you’ll find something for everyone, to suit every taste and budget. Christmas carols play in the background. In bigger town Christmas shopping streets are opened. Helsinki’s own traditional Christmas street is Aleksanterinkatu, beautifully bedecked with Christmas lights.
Christmas markets are an excellent way to enjoy the seasonal atmosphere in Helsinki and Turku. The traditional markets are worth a visit not only because of the variety of high-quality local products on offer but also their beautiful historic settings.