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Christmas traditions in Finland

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The Christmas season in Finland begins on the Saturday before Advent, known as Little Christmas. This is the day the Christmas lights are turned on. Offices hold parties and in the homes families set up a little Christmas tree with little gifts for the children. Advent wreaths are hung on the doors of apartments and houses. These customs date from the end of the 19th century. In Sweden the Advent tree has been used since the 1870s.

The Swedish-speaking population observes Lucia’s Day on December 13. The public Lucia procession has been held in Stockholm since 1927, but did not come into custom in some parts of Finland until after World War II. Since 1950 Finland’s largest Swedish-language newspaper has organized a public vote and collection for a young girl to bear the name Lucia. The winner is carried in a procession at 6 pm from Helsinki Cathedral to Finlandia Hall where she is crowned. In family celebrations, a daughter appears dressed in white and wearing a crown of candles, serving coffee and pastries in the morning.

In the countryside Christmas preparations begin on December 9, Anna’s day. During the Middle Ages the ‘Peace of Christmas’ was proclaimed on December 21; the custom has now been changed to Christmas Eve. Christmastide lasted from Christmas Day to St. Knut’s day. Presently it ends with Epiphany on January 6, as in the South Scandinavian and German tradition. The celebration of the birth of Christ has replaced the pre-Christian festival of the return of the sun, the dead and the end of the crop year.

Food was important in Christmas festivities in olden days. Christmas rice pudding and lutefish are still popular. The most important element of the meal is the eating of ham, which originated in pagan times. Presently turkey has become more common. Going to church early on Christmas morning is part of the Christmas tradition in Finland and Sweden, but not in Denmark and Norway.

Some of the old Christmas ornaments used to decorate the home are still used today, such as the carved wooden Christmas cross and the Christmas mobile made of straw. Christmas straw used to be strewn on the floor of the home, but no longer. Straw was also spread over the church floor in the 19th century, but the custom has ended.

Christmas customs changed a lot since the latter half of the 19th century. The biggest changes are Christmas presents, trees, Santa Claus and his little helpers. During the 18th century presents were left outside the door or thrown inside the houses in town. The custom spread to the rural regions of western Finland at the end of the 19th century, but it didn’t reach Karelia until the 1920s and 1930s.

Wealthy people in town had Christmas trees from the 1820s on and the rural parsonages of south and central Ostrobothnia had them from the 1850s. Most of the population adopted the Christmas tree in the 1870s. During the 20th century the tree became widely known due to Christmas festivities in the schools. There was a public outdoor Christmas tree in Tampere in 1894 and in Åbo in 1900. Since the Second World War the custom has been adopted by most towns.

Christmas presents are brought by Santa Claus. “Old Father Christmas” is the German figure of St. Nicholas, who didn’t become widely known until the beginning of the 20th century. He was already distributing gifts among the townspeople in the first half of the 19th century. His little helper originated in the 1880s and was shown on Christmas cards sent out at that time. During recent years Santa has been assisted by one or more helpers wearing long red caps.

Many Christmas entertainments were concentrated in the older tradition on St. Stephen’s Day. He was the patron saint of horses, so it was an old tradition to put some money in the church donation box in Central Ostrobothnia in 1680 and the men could hold a party and drink a St. Stephen’s toast in the stables and go for St. Stephen’s Day horse rides. In the towns ‘star boys’ (stjärngossar – Swe. – tiernapojat – Fin.) went from house to house carrying a star and singing. In the rural areas during the 19th century Christmas games were held. This involved people dressed as masked animals such as a cuckoo, wolf, cow, sheep, etc. In western Finland there were processions of masked figures on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26) and St. Knut’s Day (Jan. 13). The participants were usually young and they sang in return for beer or coffee. The only Christmas play is “The Star Boys” which was originally performed by teenagers. This tradition which came from Sweden at the end of the 18th century is still alive.

Today the main features of Christmas are the Christmas meal on Christmas Eve which is a family affair, the Christmas tree, gifts, the Christmas sauna, cards and decorations, and Santa Claus if there are children. Christmas is also publicly celebrated by attending church and placing candles on graves.

New Year celebrations are now part of a general tradition. There are celebrations with music, speeches and toasts. Families still cast molten tin in a pail of water in order to obtain information about the future. This is a custom known by the gentry since the beginning of the 18th century and also observed at All Saints Day and on Christmas Eve.


Excerpts from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve (ISBN 951-746-006-6)

June Pelo


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