The Customs of Christmas

Christmas Around the World — Finland

Santa Claus and a reindeer sleigh in FinlandChristmas in Finland is a wonderful, magical time. It is the most celebrated holiday in Finland. The days are short. The nights are long, and every Christmas is white. The customs of Christmas kept by the Finnish people make their holiday gala unique.

The Christmas season officially starts the first Sunday in December, also known as the First Advent. Prior to the First Advent the Finnish people enjoy Little Christmas, Pikkujoulu, parties. Little Christmas parties, which start as early as October, began in the 1920's. People would get together to make Christmas decorations, plan their entries in the town Christmas bazaar or plan the bazaar itself, and have fun. Today people mainly gather to talk, play games, listen to music, enjoy or plan a Christmas program, and partake in good Christmas foods and drink.

A lot goes into the celebration of Christmas in Finland. On or around the first Sunday of December many towns and cities host Advent parades and street lighting ceremonies. Christmas bazaars with crafts and tasty Christmas foods for sale are set up in the town square of nearly every town. Often these bazaars benefit local charities. The most popular Christmas bazaar is the Tuomaan Markkinat, Thomas's Market, held in Helsinki's Esplanade Park with nearly 100 stalls offering Christmas crafts, confections, and delicacies. Even children get into the spirit of the celebration setting up advent calendars to countdown the days until Christmas.

December 9 is St. Ann's Day. St. Ann's Day celebrates the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus who, according to legend, was named Ann. Many times she is depicted dressed in green holding both Mary and Jesus on her lap. Traditionally Christmas baking, cleaning, and brewing starts on this date. Many families brew their own special beer for Christmas. The most important job, however, is baking the Christmas loaf. The Christmas loaf is large, limited only by the size of the family's oven, and is made with the first of the year's harvested grain. It is a flat loaf stamped with the shape of a cross. It serves as the base of a centerpiece made of bread during the Christmas season. The centerpiece is built by stacking smaller loaves on the Christmas loaf topped off with a small round of cheese with a candle placed on top. The top loaf may be eaten and replaced during the Christmas season, but the rest of the tower remains through the season. The Christmas loaf is usually saved until the first day of planting when it is eaten and/or fed to cattle as they are led out to pasture. This is thought to bring a good harvest and to protect the farm's livestock in the year to come. Today the Christmas loaf, called limppu, is flavored with orange, fennel, and cumin and decorated with stars and other holiday shapes made of gingerbread dough.

On December 13 St. Lucia's Day is celebrated. Lucia was martyred in 304 A.D. for converting to Christianity against her family's wishes. The day was first celebrated in Finland in 1930 and became a tradition in 1950. Each year Finland chooses a national Lucia by popular vote. The money raised by the selection supports health care programs throughout the nation. During her reign Lucia visits schools and hospitals and appears at public events. In the towns, cities, and homes across Finland St. Lucia's Day is celebrated with formal celebrations, candles, and a candle-crowned young girl playing the part of Lucia.

All baking, beer brewing, and house cleaning is to be finished by December 21, St. Thomas's Day. Even the barns are to be cleaned and swept from top to bottom by this date. All handmade Christmas candles for home and church are to be finished by this date also. The Finnish people also hope for a lot of snow by this date. According to a Finnish proverb, "The deeper it piles up before Thomas's Day, the deeper it piles up in the bin." In other words, the more it snows before St. Thomas's Day, the better the crops will be in the coming year.

The Christmas festivities begin at 12 noon Christmas Eve day. It is then that the residents of Turku go to the town square and the people of Finland tune in their radios or televisions to hear the Proclamation of Christmas Peace. The town clerk of Turku reads the proclamation. After the proclamation and the speeches are finished bands begin playing and people join in singing joyful carols and other local Christmas songs. Some time before eating the Christmas feast many Finnish people enjoy a Christmas sauna. There are a little over 5 million people living in Finland and approximately 1.5 million saunas. For them Christmas just would not be Christmas without their Christmas Eve sauna. At sunset families visit the local cemetery to honor the dead and place candles and sometimes wreaths on the graves of loved ones. Many cemeteries even provide a brief service at 5:00 P.M. The placing of candles on the graves may be attributed to pre-Christian times when people believed that spirits of the dead were present among the living at the winter solstice. The modern custom, however, started in the 1920's when candles were placed on the graves of soldiers.

The Christmas Eve dinner is the big feast of the season. Traditionally, one will find the table laden with baked ham, rutabaga casserole, potato or carrot casserole, smoked whitefish and herring with sauces, salmon, lutefish, liver pate, fruit soup, fruit salad, breads and pastries, and rice or prune pudding. All of this is washed down with mulled wine, homemade beer or near beer, and Christmas glögi, a rich drink made with red or white wine, a port, or currant wine, and a spice mixture of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and orange zest. Non-alcoholic versions use currant and other berry juices. Many people drop raisins or peeled almonds in their glögi. On the islands off Finland's west coast Christmas pike, known as jouluhauki, is served in a pot with potatoes, rutabagas, and onions. A horseradish sauce and a chopped hard-boiled egg round out the fare. Christmas dinner would not be complete without a variety of rich, delicious desserts. In Finland these desserts include joulutortut, yuletide prune turnovers, piparkakut, gingerbread cookies, and korvapu-ustit, cinnamon buns. Raisin cakes, assorted pastries, and braided coffee bread known as pulla are also popular Finnish desserts.

Then comes Santa Claus. Santa Claus, known by the name Joulupukki in Finland, visits every child in Finland before going on his yearly trek. Children, dressed in red felt hats and gray and red elf suits, wait for him and serve as Santa's helper elves when Santa distributes his gifts.

While Christmas Eve can be a hectic, festive day, Christmas day is a quiet day of rest and relaxation. Many people attend church services starting as early as 6:00 A.M. to sing carols and hymns and to welcome Christmas day. Meals are also much simpler on Christmas day. In the morning raisin buns, rolls shaped like little people, warm breads, rolls, and pastries are on the menu. For the rest of the day people eat the leftovers from the Christmas Eve dinner. No unnecessary work is done on Christmas day.

The fun and frolic of the Christmas season starts back up on December 26, St. Stephen's Day. Families may enjoy a traditional holiday sleigh ride to visit relatives; or they may have a picnic, go boating, go snowmobiling, or enjoy a number of winter sports including skiing, hiking, ice surfing, ice golf, and sledding.

New Year's Eve is a day of fun and fortune. Telling one's fortune using melted tin is an ancient Finnish custom. Tin is melted over the New Year's fire then cast into a bucket of cold water. The cooled tin is then held up near a wall. The shadow's shape predicts the coming year. If the shape resembles a bird then the person will have a high-flying year. If the shadow resembles a boat, an airplane, or a car then travel is in the future. If the tin looks like a wadded, wrinkled mess, have no fear. A wad of money is coming your way. Before dumping the water used to cool the tin people can dip a handkerchief in the water and place it under their pillow. It is said that one will see his or her future spouse that night in a dream. If a family decided to not melt tin they could tell family member's fortunes using coffee cups. Objects are placed under overturned coffee cups. Each person takes a turn choosing 2 or more cups. The items discovered under the cups predict the future. The objects are then replaced and the cups mixed up for the next person. Some of the items and their meanings are as follows: a coin means wealth or a windfall, red yarn means a happy new year, black yarn means grief is coming, a ring means marriage, a sugar cube means the sweet life waits for you, bread means that life will continue as it is, a pin means illness or misfortune is on its way, a key stands for a new home, and a little yarn doll means a new baby is on the way.

As the end of the year approaches friends and strangers crowd the downtown streets to sing and listen to festive holiday music, to hear speeches by town mayors and other community leaders, to hear churches ring out the old year and ring in the new, and to watch fireworks displays. Many churches offer New Year's services with hymns and prayers for peace in the coming year.

Like Christmas day, New Year's Day is a day of rest and leisure.

On Epiphany, January 6, most Finnish families take down the tree and pack up the decorations for another year. This day officially brings the Christmas season to an end.


People in Finland prefer to decorate their homes in a simple, tasteful manner. Houses covered with lights or front lawns covered with lawn ornaments just are not seen in Finland.

The preferred materials used to decorate houses are straw and candles. Many homes are decorated with ornaments made from straw, many times combined with a red ribbon or a bow. A popular decoration is the himmeli, an intricate geometric mobile made by hand using twisted straw pieces. In the past these decorations were made at himmeli-making bees. Today these bees have become parties. Other ornaments make from straw take the form of stars, reindeer, elves, other Christmas characters, and wreaths.

Somewhere in the Finnish house usually over the dinner table one will see a Christmas bird. This bird symbolizes the Holy Spirit and His importance in the Christmas story and in the life of Jesus.

Another popular decoration seen in many homes and as a part of public displays is the creche or nativity scene. In the past as many European countries turned to Protestantism and away from Catholicism creches lost their popularity, but they have made a comeback in the last hundred years or so.

Candles also play a major role in Christmas decorating in the home. Candles, electric and traditional, are displayed in windows, on tables, and on Christmas trees. Candles are even used outside the home. They are placed inside mounds of snowballs or in lanterns made of ice.

Christmas tree

Up until the early 19th century Christmas trees were non-existent in Finland. It is not known for sure when the first Christmas tree arrived in Finland. One story says that in 1829 Baron Klinckowstrom decorated his home with 8 lighted trees. Another story claims that the first Christmas tree in Finland was set up in the 1830's by Professor Alexander Blomqvist for his German wife who had known them in Germany.

Early Christmas trees were decorated with wax candles, gingerbread cookies, paper roses, nuts, candies, and apples. Modern trees are decorated with electric candles, glass beads, angels, glass bells, birds, a ribbon with the words "Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men," and a star on top. One may also find a garland of flags from Finland and other countries from around the world and handmade Finnish straw decorations such as snowflakes, reindeer, stars, and other Christmas shapes adorning the tree.

Santa Claus (Joulupukki)

Santa Claus, known as Joulupukki in Finland, has experienced quite a metamorphosis. In pagan times Joulupukki, whose name means "Yule Buck" in Finnish, was a gruff goat that threatened and scolded everyone. Represented by either a real goat or a person covered in animal skins, Joulupukki demanded presents to stay in his good graces instead of giving them away. Over time the goat mellowed and started giving gifts to good children, but he still menaced the bad ones.

Santa Claus, complete with red suit and kindly nature, first visited Finland in the 1800's. Joulupukki and Santa Claus finally merged into one being in 1927 thanks to "Uncle Markus" a popular Finnish radio personality.

Everyone knows that Santa Claus is very busy Christmas Eve night. Before he can go on his annual trek throughout the world he has a very important job to do in Finland. He gets an early start (the children have not gone to bed yet) because every child gets a personal visit from Joulupukki, portrayed by an uncle or a family friend. Instead of coming down the chimney, as he is known to do in the United States, he comes through the front door. He gives presents to his special helper elves, the children who may be dressed as elves, who pass out the presents to family members. Then Joulupukki may have a warm drink or a gingerbread cookie and sings a song or two with the children before leaving for the next house.

Children in the United States and other parts of the world believe that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, but Finnish children know he lives in Finland. In 1927 Markus Rautio, "Uncle Markus," host of the "Children's Hour" broadcast on Finnish public radio revealed to the world that Joulupukki lived in Korvatunturi Fell, Ear Mountain, in eastern Lapland. Korvatunturi Fell is named for 3 mountain peaks that resemble rabbit ears. It is said that those "ears" allow Santa to hear the wishes of every boy and girl in the world. He also uses the ears to help keep track of the naughty and nice list.

While people cannot visit Joulupukki's house due to its closeness to the Russian border, they can visit Santa's Workshop Village at Napapiiri, Finland. There visitors from all over the world can see Santa's Main Post Office, Santa Park, and Salla Reindeer Park.

At Santa's Main Post Office, watch Santa's helpers sort mail and fill requests for international visitors. See them keep up with Santa's list of good children on the computer using the World Wide Web and other resources that Santa has. People can also buy highly collectible Finland Christmas stamps, Lapland postcards, souvenirs, toys, books, and Christmas decorations. Since this is an official post office all mail that goes through it gets stamped with a one-of-a-kind Arctic Circle postmark. An official proof of visit certificate is given to everyone who visits Santa's Main Post Office to show to their skeptic friends back home.

Santa Park is probably the only amusement park north of the Arctic Circle. Located in a huge cave in Syvävaara Fell, Santa Park is just a short sleigh ride from Santa's Workshop Village. Visitors ride a Christmas carousel, enjoy puppet shows, and take reindeer rides. People can take in the wonders of Lapland in every season on the Magic Sleigh Ride or watch a multimedia show complete with northern lights. See Santa's Countdown Clock while visiting shops and playing games. Join in some climbing adventures and ride Santa's helicopters: all while staying inside the mountain.

Ever wonder what life is like in a reindeer herder's village? Visit Salla Reindeer Park. There one may take reindeer sleigh rides and even earn a reindeer driving license. Guests can learn about reindeer and their predators, pet and feed tame reindeer, and even learn to throw a Lappish lasso.

Children, and adults, can mail Santa Claus at
      Santa Claus's Main Post Office
      Arctic Circle
or visit Santa's website at

Become a member of Santa's Official Fan Club at

Listen to the Official Santa Claus Radio Station at

Have a Hyvää Joulua (Merry Christmas)!

Jesus is the Reason for the season

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