(Stolen from the Internet and presented here without a shred of shame.)
As everyone knows, Santa Claus comes from Finland. His home is on the fell Korvatunturi (“Ear Fell”) on the Russo-Finnish border. Half of it is actually on the Russian side of the CURRENT border, but it all most certainly belongs to Greater Finland. (A project to redraw the border to reflect this immutable fact of history came to an unfortunate end in 1944 due to bungling by our comrades-in-arms, the Nazis. But I digress.)
Being the chosen people of the Santa, it is obivious that Finns know best how to celebrate Christmas. Therefore I have compiled you an overview of some of the most essential Finnish Christmas traditions.
As everywhere, the buildup for Christmas starts early, and this is of course reflected in the media. After the press is done with discussing the dresses worn at the President’s independence day ball (December 6th), by tradition the news is mostly about:
• whether there will be snow on Christmas or not
• how you absolutely must not put the grease left over from cooking your Christmas ham into the toilet, as it will clog the sewers and feed the rats
• police reminding you about burglars, heavy traffic on the days leading to Christmas, and the perils of heavy drinking
Christmas office parties, pikkujoulut, are a must and not limited to your own company. A well-networked punter may take part in several weekly during the pikkujoulut season which starts in mid-November. The parties themselves consist of free booze (which translates to heavy drinking, this being Finland), cringe-worthy performers, attempts at casual sex, and fights in the taxi queues.
A major pre-Christmas activity is watching several different performances of the Tiernapojat (“Star Boys”), a musical play performed by young boys in a 19th century Northern dialect. The play’s characters are:
• King Herod
• King of the Moors, in blackface
• Knihti (The Knight)
• Mänkki/The Star Boy, whose job on stage is mostly to carry around a big star
The plot is as follows: Herod repeatedly walks under crossed swords, striking them apart with his own. He then vanquishes King of the Moors. Mänkki announces the birth of Jesus. Herod sends Knihti to kill all boys under two years of age. Knihti repeatedly walks under crossed swords, striking them apart with his own, and then leaves. A song is sung in praise of Emperor Alexander II of Russia. Knihti returns with his sword red from blood and is rewarded for his bravery. A song is sung in praise of God. A cap is passed around to collect money.
Christmas carols are sung all December, like everywhere else, too. In addition to the international favourites we have many of our own:
• Varpunen jouluaamuna, about a spirit of a dead child returning to visit his family as a sparrow, freezing and hungry
• Sylvian joululaulu, about a bird who has been blinded and put into a cage for purpose of hunting
• Hei tonttu-ukot hyppikää (originally Swedish), a song about jolly Christmas elves, whose most memorable line goes something like “our life is short – and dark and unpleasant to boot”
• Tonttu, about an insomniac Christmas elf who drowns his existential angst in hard labour
Beside the classics we also have more modern Christmas favourites, such as “Sika” by Juice Leskinen, with children singing in anticipation for slaughtering the pig for Christmas, and “Joulupukki puree ja lyö” by M.A. Numminen, about a foul-mouthed and violent Santa.
A real (not plastic) Christmas tree is essential. Traditionally, it was stolen from your neighbour’s land, but nowadays it is more common to buy one. Wherver you get it from, choosing a good tree is of paramount importance. The newspaper Kouvolan Sanomat reports that ugly Christmas trees are a major cause of familial fights and divorce.
The big day in Finland is Christmas Eve, as Santa first delivers the goods in locations closer to his base of operations before moving on to English-speaking countries.
Usually, the day starts with hours of TV watching. Perennial favourites include:
• a live broadcast from a balcony in the city of Turku, where a civil servant threatens us with severe punishment if we disturb the public order during Christmas
• Disney’s “From All of Us to All of You” (1958), which has been shown on TV every Christmas about as long as TV has existed in Finland
Then we go to sauna. Of course we go to sauna. Ideally this should be a century-old “smoke sauna”, wood-fired sauna without a chimney, built of timber. Unfortunately, timber saunas without chimneys have a tendency to burn down, so not too many century-old smoke saunas are still standing. So it’s okay if you only have an electric sauna. Hey, that’s why the Russians are… – I mean we are – building us a new nuclear power plant, to power all those electric saunas! Hitting yourself/other people with fresh birch twigs while in sauna is de rigeur in summer, but fresh twigs are in a somewhat short supply in Christmastime. Some use twigs put in the freezer for the purpose during the summer, but many pass this part of the ritual altogether. Ice swimming is optional, though the option is unfortunately not available for us living on the sea as the sea is not frozen yet. However, many lakes further up North are ice-covered already.
Then it’s time for Christmas dinner, which, in addition to ham, includes such delicacies as:
• liver casserole
• carrot casserole
• potato casserole
• rutabaga casserole
• pickled herring in mustard
• pickled herring in vinegar
• pickled herring in tomato sauce
• pickled herring with onions
• spicy pickled herring
• salad of pickled herring, pickled cucumber, carrot, potato, beatroot and apple, with smetana
• dried fish in lye (yes, the sort of lye usually used in making industrial cleaners)
• balls of green marmelade
Joulupukki (Yule Goat/Stag, i.e. Santa) visits after dinner to bring presents to nice children, and a bundle of sticks to naughty ones. Unfortunately, this latter tradition seems to be on its way out despite its obivious educational value. (The same could be said for the demise of the tradition of masked “St. Knut’s Stags” visiting homes sticks in hand demanding booze and food at the end of Christmas holidays in January; a sort of violent adult version of trick-or-treat.)
Christmas Day is mostly spent nursing your hangover from all the mulled wine and Koskenkorva, and trying to get some sleep as sugar-rushed kids run around screaming with their new toys.
On St. Stephen’s Day (December 26th) you return to civilization, that is, go to a pub (or more traditionally, a dance) after having spent the previous days with family. It’s typically one of the best party nights of the year.
So there you have it. Hyvää joulua!