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Finnish wedding customs

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On an early summer evening in Finland, you may witness the unexpected sight of a group of young men or women roaming about in public places with one of their contemporaries in tow. He or she is a future bride or bridegroom, usually wearing a mask and often only partly clothed, peddling dubious services, scribbling down advice on life and amusing the rest of the party while bewildering passers-by. Early summer is the most popular time for weddings in Finland and the groups are giving one of their number a rousing send-off to married life.

The fashion spread rapidly in the 1980s, having earlier been a ritual known only to small circles in urban areas. The spreading popularity of these prenuptial amusements was not an inexplicable phenomenon. Following a rejection of ritual in the 1970s, people in Finland were quickly regaining a taste for fun with style. After a considerable lapse, it became fashionable again to add some chic to weddings and other family occasions. Finland followed an international trend which was thought to have been sparked off by the fairy-tale wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana in 1981.

Although people now spend more money and go to more trouble to arrange weddings than they did a couple of decades ago, all weddings are by no means equally lavish. Annually, some 24,000 marriages are solemnized in Finland, some modest, some opulent. The two extremes are the fairy-tale wedding, with hundreds of guests, or a visit to the local administra-tive court with two witnesses.


Folk Customs and Ecclesiastical Rule

In earlier times, a marriage was based on an agreement between two families. An engagement was confirmed with a handshake and the wedding sealed the link between the two families. The history of wedding customs is more than an account of folk traditions. The rules of the church and Lutheran observance have also influenced the way a marriage was solemnized.

Engagement presents have been exchanged since pre-Christian times. In 1686, ecclesiastical law made an engagement a legally binding agreement. In fact, the engagement marked the beginning of conjugal life for couples in rural areas. In Scandinavia, engagement rings became fashionable among the gentry in the 16th century. For poorer country folk, a handshake sufficed as confirmation of an engagement.

With the reform of the Marriage Act in 1988, the engagement lost its legal validity although it still lives on as a tradition. Moreover, the significance of the engagement is changing. Today, rings might be bought and worn on the ring finger as a sign of "going steady." An engagement no longer necessarily indicates an intention to marry.

Church weddings were compulsory from the 18th century until 1917, when civil marriages became acceptable before the law. Currently, 86% of Finns belong to the Lutheran Church and almost all church members want a church wedding. One couple in five prefer a civil ceremony. Religious wedding ceremonies are usually held in a church or chapel but they some-times take place in private homes or at the place of the wedding reception. Those with a liking for the unusual can get married in a snow castle or a chapel in a shopping center.

A comparison between modern practices and old country wedding ceremonies illustrates the special features of Finnish wedding customs. The comparison is meaningful since Finland's agrarian past is surprisingly close. Until the end of the last century, nine out of ten Finns earned their living from rural occupations.


Wedding Festivities and Social Class

In rural communities a marriage was not founded on romantic considerations but rather on economic arrangements. Property changed hands and ties between families were strengthened through marriage. Parents had much influence on the choice of spouse.

Weddings provided an opportunity to display wealth and social status. Rural wedding festivities often lasted for several days, with celebrations taking place at both the bride's and the groom's home. In rural areas weddings were timed for the autumn and the Christmas period because there was then time off from farm work and food was more plentiful than at other times of the year. Prenuptial preparations called for professional helpers: among them were match-makers, bride's dressers, cooks and minstrels.

The lavish wedding celebrations enjoyed by freeholders could last for up to two weeks. Western Finnish "crown" weddings, so named because of the decorative crown worn by the bride, were particularly spectacular. The wedding procession passed through an arch of honor on its way into the festive home. The bride and groom were married under a canopy, known as the bridal sky. The wedding room was decorated with weavings, garlands, straw ornaments, mirrors and goodwill messages. Weddings culminated in feasting and dancing. Minstrel music set the rhythm of the revels and the pace could be so hectic that the exhausted bride might need a stand-in after several days of dancing.

Not all could afford, or even wanted, that type of wedding. In many parts of the country religious revivalist movements restrained the celebrations. Instead of dancing, hymns were sung and the bridal couple's modest clothing revealed their religious conviction.

Poor people, such as farm hands and servant girls, were married in the vicarage, the wedding ceremony being followed by a dance in which the guests could take part for a small charge. Sometimes money was collected for the newlyweds. On payment of a small fee, male wedding guests could dance with the bride. The Orthodox Christian tradition, with its ritualistic wedding laments, colored wedding festivities in the eastern parts of Finland.

In the course of the 19th century, the social differences in Finnish society grew deeper. This division was reflected in wedding customs. The weddings of the gentry, who formed a small minority, were clearly influenced by trends in con-tinental Europe. Gradually, the fashions and international wedding customs of the gentry spread to all sectors of the population. The basis of marriage also changed. Romantic love replaced economic considerations in determining the choice of a spouse.


New Festivities, Old Traditions

Marriage marks the most important turning point of adulthood. In the lives of most Finns, their wedding remains a unique experience. Despite the increase in the divorce rate, 87% of Finnish married couples today continue to live in the first marriage of both partners.

Although people recall their wedding day all their lives, without exception the occasion is recorded in a more concrete form. For over a century, couples have been immortalized in wedding photographs. The pictures register changes in clothing and customs as well as changes in familial patterns and values.

Today, a wedding almost never marks the beginning of a couple's life together or the establishment of a home, and is never the product of an agreement between the spouses' families. Most couples have lived together for years before they get married.

The wedding no longer means the start of a relationship between a couple but rather its culmination, a fresh stimulus in an everyday life that may have become routine. It is quite common for the bridal couple's own daughters to act as bridesmaids, their sons as attendants. Celebrities, from sports heroes to pop stars, show the way to the general public.

In the past, the bride's family used to arrange and pay for the wedding. Today, the couple themselves cover the costs or share them with their parents. The couple plans the festivities according to their own wishes. Wealth or social standing seldom decide what kind of wedding the couple is going to have. The determining factors are more likely to be the couple's view of life, values and personal preferences. The number of wedding guests may be as high as in an old country wedding but instead of villagers and relatives the guests are now the couple's immediate family and contemporaries. Weddings today are occasions arrange for two circles of friends rather than two families.

In many cases, Finnish bridal couples today are the children of couples who were married in the 1960s and '70s. In those days, couples almost competed to show how modest and unceremonious a wedding could be. In the aftermath of the economic boom of the 1980s, attitudes changed. After a long hiatus, announcements of engagements, weddings and births again began to appear in newspapers.

The descendants of brides in Marimekko dresses and grooms in blue jeans wanted to dress up in veils and lace and tailcoats. However, the arrangement of a dream wedding requires more than a little effort. Guidebooks and magazines devoted to weddings sell well and wedding fairs attract a growing number of visitors every year.

Princess for a Day

Today's weddings must be impressive, innovative and, above all, they must display tradition. Although authentic, indigenous traditions are in favor, they may equally well be borrowed or invented ones. Many of the customs adopted in Finland this century, from throwing rice to cutting the wedding cake and casting the bride's bouquet, stem from British or Anglo-American sources.

The modern Finnish bride knows that she has to wear some-thing old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. The wedding limousine is equipped with rattling tin cans and the groom carries his bride across the threshold. For the modern Finn, these represent "genuine old traditions," although they are relatively new, imported rituals that have been assimilated from films, women's magazines and popular literature.

Alongside the exotic fashions, homespun customs do still flourish. The Anglo-American best man is accompanied by a genuine Finnish kaaso. Unlike earlier days, she is no longer a professional dresser but the bride's best friend. Features originating from the old rural weddings include dancing with the bride or placing a boy child momentarily on the bride's lap for a fee. In addition, an ideal wedding requires a genuine Finnish idyllic backdrop: a cloudless early summer's day, a picturesque wooden church, a lakeside setting complete with silver birches.

The priest's "Amen" signifies little change to a couple who have already lived together for a long time, but the popularity of wedding festivities reflects the fact that marriage is still considered an important milestone in the journey through life. A modern wedding can be characterized as a display rite. This is emphasized at every stage of the proceedings. The newlyweds step out of the church first, cut the cake first and start the wedding waltz. Only the bride is allowed to wear white and only the groom has a flower in his lapel.

Be the wedding big or small, traditional or modern, one fact is immutable: the bride is the beauteous focal point of the proceedings. A well-educated Finnish girl, brought up to believe in gender equality, wants for one day in her life to be the object of celebration and admiration. Perhaps this is why fairy-tale weddings are back in fashion.

Sirpa Karjalainen, University of Helsinki

From Finnish Features, published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

June Pelo


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