New York sings a Finnish Christmas tune

Each year, traditional Christmas songs bring together New York’s dispersed Finnish community (includes Top 5 playlist).

Each year, traditional Christmas songs bring together the dispersed Finnish community in New York. Our reporter visits the event, and a US-based Finnish musician compiles a Top Five playlist (link below).

Greenwich Village in Manhattan, known for its jazz venues, celebrity-inhabited brownstones and collegiate bars, is also home to the New York Finnish Lutheran Congregation. Its bimonthly services are usually attended by a small group of devotees, but once a year, roughly 300 people crowd in these pews to partake in a seasonal tradition: a sing-along of Finnish Christmas songs.

Accompanied by an organ, members of this immigrant community form a solemn chorus of varied ages and accents as they recall the melodies of their childhoods. Children shift in their seats, candles emit fine strands of smoke, and the honks, shouts and clicks of heels on the surrounding streets seem to disappear.

“The atmosphere makes you feel like you’re back in Finland,” says Harri Rehnberg, who has lived in New York since 1998.

Minor keys rule

Photo: Laura Palotie

New York’s Finnish Lutheran Congregation meets in a little church nestled in Greenwich Village. Photo: Laura Palotie

Much has been said about the Finnish preference for slow tempos and minor keys. While American holiday tunes focus on mistletoes and silver bells, Christmas songs in Finland are usually more meditative; many are also church hymns. Often noting the harshness of winter or describing Christmas as a day of reflection, a thread of spirituality runs through Finnish evergreens.

“Christmas in Finland is a family-oriented holiday that arrives at a dark time of the year,” says Finnish Lutheran Congregation pastor Tiina Talvitie, whose surname just happens to mean “winter road.” “Through these songs, we remember the ways in which we used to celebrate as kids. A lot of people want to keep these traditions alive for their own children.”

Rehnberg, who is married to an American and has a four-year-old daughter, says that becoming a father has drawn him closer to the local Finnish community. “It’s good for my daughter to hear Finnish so that she doesn’t think of it as some secret language invented by her dad.”

The event wraps up with a distribution of candles and the singing of “Silent Night” in Finnish, Swedish and English.

Lucia sing-along

Photo: Ilona Lähde

Selling Finnish candy makes for good fundraising. Photo: Ilona Lähde

Another part of the service is a children’s Lucia procession, held in honour of Lucia Day, a Scandinavian December tradition officially celebrated on December 13.

As the congregation sings “Santa Lucia,” the children walk down the aisle, dressed in white robes and clutching electric candles. Many are students of the New York Finnish School, which organises a Christmas bazaar in conjunction with the sing-along. Rice porridge, wool socks and Fazer chocolate are among the items on sale.

“This is the largest fundraiser of the year for both the school and our congregation. We don’t earn money from taxes like congregations in Finland, so we depend on donations,” says Talvitie. The sing-along and bazaar take place every year early in the Christmas season.

New York-based classical pianist and organist Kalle Toivio recently took the stage with his sister Seeli at the famed Carnegie Hall. He’s also the Finnish Lutheran Congregation’s musical director, and accompanies the annual Christmas carol event.

“Our holiday songs often display a thorough sense of musical expertise in their composition,” he says. “Many of them are also based on real poetry – there’s beautiful prose and a strong sense of structure in them.”

Kalle Toivio’s Top Five Christmas playlist

New York-based Finnish musician Kalle Toivio lists his personal Top Five Finnish holiday songs for us below.

1. Maa on niin kaunis (“Beautiful is the Earth”), a popular hymn that originated as a Silesian folk song. “In 1906, my family name was changed to Toivio [denoting “hope”] based on a line in the song that refers to ‘the hopeful road of our souls,’” Kalle Toivio says.
2. Sylvian joululaulu (“Sylvia’s Christmas song”), based on a poem by 19th-century Finnish author Zacharias Topelius, describes the longing that a migratory bird feels for its Nordic home.
3. Varpunen jouluaamuna (“A Sparrow on Christmas Morning”) is also based on a Zacharias Topelius poem. In the song, the spirit of a little boy comes to visit his sister as a bird.
4. En etsi valtaa loistoa (“Give Me No Splendour, Gold or Pomp”) was written by Finland’s most legendary composer Jean Sibelius, with lyrics by Topelius.
5. Enkeli taivaan (“Angel of Heaven”) is played at almost every holiday church service. The hymn was written by Martin Luther in the 1500s.

By Laura Palotie, December 2012

Christmas - Ylaornamentti