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Life-cycle rites


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From time immemorial, the Baltic-Finnic people have divided the period of gestation (40 weeks) into two periods. During the first period the fetus is inanimate and during the second period, when it begins to move, it has a life or soul (själ, Sw.). The concept according to which the baby was without a soul until the moment it was born was probably of Christian origin. The birth mother and baby were one and anything that happened to one affected the other. This period came to an end when the child was baptized and given a name and the mother was churched. The child had its own guardian spirit with its first tooth.

In the early states of pregnancy the mother carried on with her work as usual, but later she avoided the heaviest jobs. She had to observe various taboos and avoid anything which could generate corresponding characteristics in the child. She had to keep to various rules concerning behavior and diet. She also had to avoid anything to do with sickness, slaughtering and death.

Finnish women gave birth in the sauna; Finlands Swedes preferred the living room, and the North Ostrobothnians the living room, the cow shed or the sauna. The mother usually gave birth in a stooping position - a universal custom. During the birth various forms of magic were performed to make the birth easier: loosening the mother's belt, ties, buttons, buckles and hair. The only drug used since the 17th century was hot water, coffee or milk and seasoned with pepper, salt, syrup, powder, etc.

An older, experienced woman (barnmorska, Sw.) assisted at birth. By the end of the 18th century the towns and some parishes used trained midwives. The after-birth and placenta were buried in some inaccessible place for they were "part of the child" and could be used to harm him. Attempts were made to predict the child's future from the course of delivery and from the look of the newborn child. An unbaptized child had to be protected in many ways and could never be left alone. The Scandinavian tradition (bortbyting Sw.) believed in changelings. They were sickly and abnormal.

About a week after the birth the neighbor wives and relatives would call on the mother, bringing food: bread, cheese, milk, rice pudding. Any man who happened to enter the house where there was a new-born baby would lose his hat or cap and could only get it back by giving the baby money. The other members of the household and guests were offered a drink and something to eat (cheese, bread, meat) the moment a baby was born. This meal was known as barnatå (Sw.).

During the Middle Ages children were baptized in church on a Sunday, in accordance with the ecclesiastic tradition. The same practice was observed after the Reformation under the Ecclesiastic Law of 1686. Church baptisms were most common at the end of the 17th century. By the latter half of the 17th century home or parsonage baptisms were becoming common. Home baptisms continued to be most common in the first half of the 18th century, and in the 19th century christenings were usually held at home or at the parsonage. In the second and third decades of the 20th century church christenings were more common and have come back into fashion since the Second World War.

In the 17th and 18th centuries babies were baptized at the age of 1-3 days; this was still common practice in the latter half of the 19th century. In the 1850s-1880s about 25% of the babies in some congregations of Finland Proper and Lower Satakunta were baptized on the first day and about 50% on the second. Only in North Ostrobothnia and Lapland were they christened later, due to the long distances that had to be traveled. Under the Ecclesiastic Law of 1686 babies had to be christened when they were 8 days old at the latest.

Babies were taken to their christening by godparents (gudmor, Sw.) - usually two couples chosen from among relatives and neighbors. Children of peasants had 4-6 godparents in Finland Proper in the 17th century. Christening presents usually consisted of money or silver. The obligations of the godparents ceased when the child was confirmed, but in Eastern Finland (Karelia) the godparents often maintained a close relationship until the child was married.

Personal names were well established among the Baltic Finns as early as the pre-Christian era, but nothing is known about how the name was given. According to an epistle written in 1534 by Makarios, Archbishop of Novgorod, it was the custom among Karelians for the shaman to name a child. With the spread of Christianity Christian, Scandinavian, Low German and Russian names came into use. Christian forenames became more common in the 14th century. Children have been named after their parents or grandparents since the 17th century. In the second half of the 19th century children in the country regions were usually given two names; this applied to about 75% of all children in certain parishes of Finland Proper. This custom continues today.

It is possible that in the pre-Christian era children were not named until they had their first teeth, because according to popular belief they did not have a guardian spirit of their own until then and thus had to be protected in various ways. For his first tooth a child was given a "tooth coin" or, as was the case in the 19th century, a cow or sheep, such as in Savo and Karelia. In Southwest Finland a party was held for relatives and neighbors when the child took its first steps, at which oat porridge or rice pudding was served.

Infant mortality was high in previous centuries, as a result of disease, poor hygiene and unsuitable food. In some parts of the country mothers nursed their babies for a long time - sometimes until the child was three - for it was believed that a woman would not become pregnant as long as she was nursing. In Ostrobothnia the nursing period was short. Infants were given cow's milk from a horn and ate the same food as adults, although it was already chewed. By the 18th century ordinary people were already noticing the shortcomings of the diet and hygiene. Children's illnesses were treated at home by folk medicine.


Until she had been churched, a woman in childbed had to remain inside the house and observe certain rules: she was not allowed to touch others, to give others anything, she had to eat and drink alone, etc. The practice of churching was introduced at an early date and continued after the Reformation. Under the Ecclesiastic Law of 1686 a woman had to be churched within six weeks of giving birth. In the 17th century it was commonly carried out on the 50th day, but in the eastern and northern parts of the country it might be combined with the baby's christening, because of the long distances to be traveled.

Churching was a ceremony aimed at purification after giving birth. In the 17th century it was conducted at the door of the church, later in the main aisle, before the altar or in the vestry. In the first half of the 19th century was more often done at home (beginning with the nobility) or at the parsonage. This custom was widely observed during the 19th century, but in the closing decades it began to be neglected, dying out entirely in the early 20th century. In the Ecclesiastic Law of 1869 churching was replaced by thanksgiving.

Excerpts from "Finnish Folk Culture" by Ilmar Talve

June Pelo

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