Christmas signifies the most important holiday of the year for the Finns. However, like many good things, this holiday is not without its foibles and nuisances.
Everyone from toddlers to senior citizens looks forward to Christmas for many months in advance. Here is a light-hearted list of the ups and downs of this special season.
Among the first signs of Christmas are the spectacular lights of all colours. They hang across streets, illuminate parks and shine from store windows. Although the decorations are admired by all, some Finns worry that the world’s greenest country shouldn’t be wasting electricity.
A large, healthy Christmas tree is a highly desired object in Finland. Strange how in a country that is 75 percent forested, these trees are so expensive – and it’s highly illegal to cut down your own. Once in the house, the tree is decorated with beautiful ornaments and brings bliss to Finnish families – until those spruce needles start dropping onto the floor. Even after the tree is disposed of, it could take many days before all those stealthy needles are found.
For many weeks before Christmas, gingerbread cookies, star-shaped pastries and holiday chocolates are given out all over town. These delicious treats are wonderful to the taste buds. Eventually though, you wonder how you put on all those extra kilos.
One sure sign of the upcoming holidays is the arrival of the Tiernapojat. This is a group of boys (sometimes girls) who enact a Christmas scene starring the Three Wise Men and King Herald. They are dress up in period customs and sing verses – a kind of mini-musical. The first time you witness this at some event, you think, “How charming!” and happily give them a tip. After the 50th time, you discreetly slip out the side door, thinking, “Enough is enough!” The same goes for the popular Christmas tunes you hear in department stores and the radio. They are really enjoyable at the beginning, but by Christmas Day you’ve heard all you can handle – until the next year.
On Christmas Eve, shops close, public transportation stops and very few restaurants are open. Many people take this opportunity to enjoy quality family time. But after hearing the same stories for two days, some people desperately look forward to Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, when custom dictates that they are allowed to visit friends again.
Preholiday parties form an important tradition, and are held by companies, organisations and associations. It’s terrific to enjoy free refreshments and entertainment. Partygoers enjoy the relaxed atmosphere – and they sometimes feel free to say things they wouldn’t normally utter. Often this is just healthy expression. Other times, people say something they will regret the next day. Fortunately, there is also a tradition of pretending to forget everything that was said and done at a Christmas party.
Finnish Christmas ham is always a treat, but it gets progressively less tasty after you eat leftovers for the following week. Christmas fish dishes such as herring, salmon and whitefish are delightful. Too bad Finns always insist on serving lipeäkala (lutfisk), which is reconstituted dried cod, and tastes worse than it sounds. Let it be said that even some Finns, as well as most foreigners, have trouble appreciating this delicacy.
These should be highly appreciated because people have struggled to find parking, fought crowds in shops and paid the highest prices of the year to get them. So enjoy your presents, even if they’re not precisely what you asked for in your letter to Santa Claus. Christmas is about more than just gifts.
He lives in Finnish Lapland, and there isn’t anything negative about him (except, perhaps, for all the commercialism people insist on attaching to him). Santa Claus always makes people smile when they see him.
So despite any minor inconveniences that Christmas brings, it will remain the number one holiday. For the Finns, a few challenges just make something more worthwhile. As you might already know, this quality is called sisu in Finnish, and denotes a special blend of courage and endurance that comes in handy during a hot sauna, a cold winter or even a busy Christmas season.
By Russell Snyder