The Finnish Heritage Museum in Fairport Harbor, Ohio, held its November meeting on Nov. 8, 2016. Before the business meeting got underway, we saw an enlightening program about Finnish Christmas traditions.
Anne Kalliomaa Pohto started off the evening with a discussion of the preparations made in planning for Christmas in Finland. In many cases, these preparations are still carried on. Depending on what the activities are, they could begin in January and go on all year. During November, it gets busier, as the final touches take place. The whole household gets involved.
Making candles took place all year long, with the best candles saved for Christmas, at home and at church. The best fish caught during the spring and summer were salted down and saved for Christmas. The Christmas ham was salted, brined and baked. Closer to Christmas, the house was cleaned to the hilt. During the holidays themselves, straw was put in the corner of the tupa (kitchen / family room) to represent the manger. Grandmother would often teach her grandchildren to make himmelis and other ornaments out of straw. Himmelis were thought to be used as decorations even before the Christmas tree was created. Himmelis brought good spirits into the home. Handmade gifts were finished – hats, mittens, and slippers. The very best linen woven on the family loom was saved for Christmas.
Next Anne, with help from Annikki Tompkins, reported on Christmas traditions in the Finnish church. On the first Sunday in Advent, the initial candle is lit. By Christmas day, there are four lit candles, three white and one purple. The purple candle stood for the royalty of Jesus. Most Finnish homes have an Advent calendar, and many churches have special programs for singing Christmas hymns and gospel songs during the Advent season. These songs often take the place of the sermon.
The majority of Finnish people were very religious, so life revolved around the church. December 6 is St. Nickolas’ day. This saint was the guardian of the birds, father of the north and god of the forest; his holiday dates from 300 A.D. St. Anna’s day is December 15. To celebrate, there are Christmas markets in the cities, and the Christmas bread is baked. Mother stays up all night to bake many different kinds of bread, but she gets to sleep late the next day. This is also the time to start baking the pastries and cookies. Most importantly, the Christmas ale is started. The original feast day for St. Thomas was
December 21. By then, many of the Christmas preparations were done and the spinning wheel hidden; spinning yarn at this time is bad luck.
On Christmas Eve, it is very dark in Finland. The church cantor would have already collected special candles for the church from the surrounding communities. In Turku, at 12 noon, an ordinance of peace is declared; and A Mighty Fortress is our God, by Martin Luther, is sung. This declaration of peace dates back to 1320 A.D. and is maintained to this day. All stores are closed; public transportation stopped. Many people go to the cemetery to light candles. Next comes the sauna, then dressing up in your good clothes. Candles on the windowsill are lit, and everyone sits down to the holiday dinner between five and seven. Father reads the gospel, and Santa Claus, or joulupukki, visits the house. Juolupukki, while hiding under a goat’s hide, throws gifts to neighborhood children.
The Christmas service was held early in the morning on Christmas day. The church has been lit with candles and the service was very long. For the rest of the day, the family stayed home with the children playing quietly. There was to be no cooking, just quiet reflection. St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, is the day to visit friends and relatives. All commercial establishments remain closed. Traditionally, many marriages were performed on St. Stephen’s Day, presumably because everyone was together to celebrate.
Epiphany, January 6, is the last day of official Christmas, and decorations are put away for another year. The tree is taken down. Life returns to normal.
Jovette Hiltunen then took the floor to tell us about her family’s visit to Santa’s village in Rovaniemi. The town, having been destroyed during WWII, was rebuilt by Alvar Aalto. One of the first people to visit after this was Eleanor Roosevelt. Rovaniemi has been instrumental in increasing tourism, helping to bring prosperity to Finland. Rovaniemi is very near the Arctic Circle in the land of the midnight sun. Santa Clause, or joulupukki, lives here with his reindeer. There are still a few remains of WWII outside of Santa’s village, which was opened in 1985.
Next up was Jane Hiltunen, who discussed her family’s traditional Finnish Christmas dinner. Christmas dinner is always held on Christmas Eve, and it’s a big deal. Tables are set with the best china and silver. The menu is honey oven baked ham, rutabaga casserole, mixed beetroot salad (or herring salad), carrot and rice casserole, and liver casserole (not much enthusiasm for this one). Some families do meat aspics, but Jane has never tried this. Any type of herring dish could be made. Desserts are mostly gingerbread cookies and nisu. Three items are a must for the meal to be considered tradional: ham, beetroot salad, and rutabaga casserole.
Jane says the rutabaga is under appreciated and not well known. This vegetable is also called a yellow turnip, and is a cross between a cabbage and a turnip. High in vitamin C, it is believed to keep the Finns healthy in the cold winters. The roots and the tops are used to feed the livestock. Lanttu, or rutabaga, are grown all over the world. It is a flavor enhancer in soup, and can be eaten raw if julienned and put in a salad. The favorite way for Finns to eat this vegetable is as a traditional Christmas dinner casserole. Everyone at the FHM meeting was given the recipe for this dish.
After a short break for refreshments, FHM President Lasse Hiltunen called the business meeting to order. Please check out our website, www.finnishheritagemuseum.org for more information about our activities. And be sure to visit if you are in the Fairport Harbor, Ohio area.
Text: © Sharon Mackey, Photos © Bill Lukshaw 2016