Scandinavian Christmas the Finnish way
This year I am lucky to be spending Christmas in Finland, where Christmas still has its authentic charm. Perhaps it is the Christmas decorations, which are less garish and more traditional, or the Christmas music played in the shops - joyful, traditional Christmas carols mixed with the more solemn, almost religious Finnish classics, such as ‘En etsi valtaa loistoa’ by Jean Sibelius.
The downside of a Scandinavian Christmas is that it can be very dark, especially in southern Finland where most Christmases are pitch black. With no snow on the ground, it can be miserably wet and dark. However, because of the darkness, Christmas in Finland is also about bringing light in the darkness. Everything is illuminated with candles - candles in the windows and candles in the graveyards (I will tell you more about remembering loved ones at Christmas later on). Candle bridges are commonly placed on window sills and are lit throughout the day and night from the first Sunday of Advent.
Christmas peace declaration
In Finland, the main Christmas celebrations take place on Christmas Eve, which is also a bank holiday. Grocery shops are open in the morning for those last minute ‘I have forgotten the almonds!’ moments. At noon comes one of the nicest traditions - the declaration of Christmas Peace from Turku, the old capital of Finland. This tradition goes back almost 700 years to 1320s. The declaration is broadcast on the radio and nowadays on the Internet too – a moment I still cherish. Finland's Christmas peace is declared for all its citizens, and if memory serves, all forest animals too for 48 hours. Hunting does not take place during the Christmas peace. Should anyone break the Christmas peace with unruly or unlawful activity, they receive the harshest permissable penalties. Once the Christmas peace has been declared, Christmas starts – bliss.
No Finnish Christmas is complete without a special Christmas sauna. It is special because the sauna will have been cleaned throroughly beforehand, the thickest and best ‘vasta’ will have been reserved for this special occasion, and the best sauna wood is used for heating.
The big Christmas house clean
Similar to other countries, the preparations for Christmas in Finland used to take days if not weeks, starting from a big Christmas house clean. The good housekeeping guidance in Finland is very standardised and thorough. The big Christmas clean would see everything cleaned: curtains washed and replaced with Christmas curtains; rugs hauled outside and ‘beaten’; books taken out of the bookshelves to be thoroughly dusted; ceiling and walls wiped down; and of course, the wooden floor wiped and polished; bed mattresses and all sofas taken outside to be exposed to the fresh winter air. The fact that all soft furnishings are shaken outdoors gives a lovely fresh smell to the house when they are brought back in – ready to be mixed with the tantalising smell of home baked cinnamon rolls, gingerbread and vegetable bakes.
I grew up in Lapland, where the forest would always be covered in snow and frozen around Christmas. I would ski with my father to select a Christmas tree – when the trees are snow-covered, it takes some skill to see what the tree will look like when it thaws out. We would take this trip a day before Christmas Eve so that our chosen tree could be cut and brought indoors to the porch to thaw overnight.
The Christmas tree would be brought into the lounge on Christmas Eve morning, ready to be decorated. ‘Decorating the Christmas tree’ is still a standard programme on YLE, the Finnish equivalent of BBC, between 2pm and 3pm. Many of our Christmas decorations were handmade from recycled materials during school craft lessons. Instead of tinsel, we would cut any coloured material (for example plastic milk bags) into thin strips and glue these together in intertwined rings to make up a chain. We would cut snowflakes from white paper and tape these to the windows. Pine cones collected in autumn and dried were also used to create a display with candles in the middle.
My most treasured decorations remain the beautiful Aarikka wooden candlesticks, so precious to my Mum that the original candles have yet to be burned. I still take them out and place them on the window sill every Christmas.
In between decorating the tree and sitting down for Christmas dinner, we would take turns to go to sauna: women and daughters first, men and boys after. Once everyone was dressed up, time to gather around the dinner table – by this time it is already dark, so typically around 5pm.
Look out for more about the Christmas dinner and what happens after in the next Scandinavian Christmas article.