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Christmas special

 

A time of tradition

By Sinikka Salokorpi

Photo: Martti Kainulainen/Lehtikuva
Shoppers head home through the well-preserved old town in the southern Finnish city of Porvoo.

No matter how modern it may become, Christmas will also always be synonymous with age-old traditions. We take a look at the high points of the Finnish Christmas season, from early December to the day after the big day.

After the first weekend of Advent, the unveiling of outdoor Christmas decorations, and a multitude of pre-Christmas parties, the next important holiday in Finland is Independence Day, which coincides with the feast day of Saint Nicholas, December 6.

The next milestone in the lead-up to Christmas is December 13, Santa Lucia's day. It's celebrated with a beautiful, singing procession led by a girl dressed in white wearing a crown of candles. This observance originally came to Finland from Sweden, where it became linked with Christmas because it happens to fall in mid-December.

Lucia was originally a Sicilian maid who defied her father by refusing to marry the man he had chosen for her. She suffered a martyr’s death. The flames of the candles in the procession denote her martyrdom.

Christmas Eve

Photo: Esko Keski-Oja/City of Turku
Click to enlarge the picture
In a tradition that has roots in the 13th century, "Christmas Peace" is declared in Turku on December 24.

In the Nordic countries, the most important Christmas celebration takes place on Christmas Eve. Finnish traditions include the Christmas sauna and the preparation of Christmas dinner. The highlight of the evening comes when Santa knocks on the door and asks, "Are there any well-behaved children here?" Naturally, every home contains only good children and they all receive presents.

Since Christmas Eve forms the most important day of the Christmas season in Finland, it is fitting that at noon on the Eve, "Christmas Peace" is proclaimed in Turku, the oldest city in the country. The tradition dates back to the 13th century.

The bells of the 14th-century Turku Cathedral sound in many a Finnish home as people view the age-old ceremony on television. Then the festivities begin.

Christmas Day and beyond

Christmas Day is a time for rest and relaxation, like reading books Santa Claus brought and eating food left over from Christmas Eve. People wait until Saint Stephen's Day (Boxing Day), December 26, to pay visits to friends and relatives. And if the weather permits, people visit outdoor events arranged by heritage societies.

According to legend, Saint Stephen was a stable boy of King Herod, and in Finland, as elsewhere, Stephen became the patron saint of horses and horsemen. On Saint Stephen's Day horses are included in the celebration of Christmas. In the past, horses pulled the sleighs when people visited friends and relatives, and sleigh rides can still be enjoyed at many a Saint Stephen's Day event.

Don't forget the tree

Photo: Miemo Penttinen/Plugi
Click to enlarge the picture
The Finnish Christmas tree tradition got its start in 1829 and became widespread in the late 1800s.

The Christmas tree is brought home on December 24 at the latest. A star is placed at the top of the tree and the branches are adorned with sweets, elves, stars and apples, the latter relating to Adam and Eve: In the Finnish calendar, Christmas Eve is the name day of both Adam and Eve. The rural gentry and wealthy townsfolk began to adopt Christmas trees in the 1820s. The earliest account of a Christmas tree inside a Finnish home dates from the year 1829, when Helsinki dignitary Baron Klinckowström placed eight of them in his reception rooms.

The population at large started adopting the tradition in the 1870s, first in the southwest and later in other regions. By the early 20th century, the Christmas tree was becoming a familiar sight in almost all Finnish homes.

There was a public outdoor Christmas tree in the town of Tampere in 1894. Helsinki authorities have placed a Christmas tree on Senate Square every year since 1930.

Helsinki has also donated a Christmas tree to Brussels every year since 1954, just as Oslo, Norway, sends one for Trafalgar Square in London.

 

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