Merry Christmas from Finland!
Two months ago I still had no idea where I would be spending Christmas. Scotland and Canada were the front runners, and the worst-case scenario (if things didn’t work out with my working Visa) would have seen me go back to Australia.
Finland wasn’t in the mix at all. Yet here I am. How did this happen? Well, when a friend emails to announce she’s moving to Finland and would I like to visit for Christmas and New Years, there’s only one correct answer.
And that’s how I find myself in the Finnish city of Jyväskylä, about three hours drive north of Helsinki, with my friend Elise, her fiance Juho, and Juho’s family.
This isn’t my first Christmas away from Australia, but it is the most culturally different. In Canada and Scotland the main difference was the weather and a big roast dinner makes a lot more sense when it’s 5C than when it’s 25C. Most of the other Christmas traditions were the same. But that’s not the case this year. I’ve been surprised some traditions I’d assumed were universal (well, universal in Christmas-celebrating cultures) are very different in Finland, or don’t exist here at all.
Christmas is on Christmas Eve
It felt strange going to bed on December 23 knowing it would be Christmas when I woke up. In Finland December 24 is the big day. In some ways this was great because we were opening presents in the evening in Finland as my friends and family were doing the same on Christmas Day in Australia. Christmas Day in Finland much the same as Boxing Day in Australia – lots of leftovers and lazing about the house. Finnish Boxing Day proceeded in the same manner. The whole period in Finland felt a lot more relaxing. The shops shut at midday on Christmas Eve, were closed all day on Christmas Day and then opened for just three hours on Boxing Day. Where as in Australia there’s always a mad rush on Christmas Eve, a full day of festivities on Christmas Day and then the ridiculous Boxing Day sales. It feels like things never really stop. By contrast in Finland we had one big evening of food and fun and then two days of doing absolutely nothing.
And of course Santa comes on Christmas Eve too. Finland is actually his first stop as he travels around the world. That’s because…..
Santa is Finnish
I grew up thinking Santa lived in the North Pole, but I’ve learnt the truth – he’s Finnish! Santa (known to the Fins as Joulupukki) is from Lapland. He is originally from Korvatunturi, but you can visit him at his office in Rovaniemi. That’s where his workshop is and the reindeer (there’s lots of reindeer in Lapland). Instead of elves, he has Joulutonttu, which as far as I can work out from the translations are Christmas spirits, sometimes called gnomes. Santa is in Rovaniemi all year round although he finishes early on Christmas Eve and starts later on Christmas Day because he’s got other places to be.
Unlike in Australia where Santa and his reindeers fly, in Finland he’s always on the ground, riding through the snow on his sleigh. If there is no snow he arrives in a car. (Seriously, this is what Finnish children are told!!) And instead of magically working his way down the chimney in the middle of the night, Santa comes to your house after dinner on Christmas Eve. He didn’t come to our house this year, but that’s because we didn’t have any small children with us. Traditionally a family member dresses up as Santa, mysteriously goes outside for some reason then reappears to learn Santa has been and gone in their absence. But if no one wants to dress up you can always hire a Santa (again, true story!). Plenty of people are willing to dress up as Santa and come to your house to give out the presents. Apparently it’s popular for university students to do it to earn some extra cash.
The night before Christmas Eve we watched a beautiful movie called Joulutarina (Christmas Story). It’s about how Santa became Santa and it’s pretty close to what most Finnish children are told about Santa Claus. But there is plenty of disagreement about Santa being Finnish as the Dutch are told he lives in Spain and the Turkish believe he is from the town of Patara in Turkey.
In the lead up to Christmas I drank a lot of glögi, which is popular in Scandinavian countries. It’s a spiced fruit punch, sometimes with booze thrown in, and just before you drink it you stir in raisins and almonds. We had this at the Christmas Market in Jyväskylä and also at home a lot. I also made Christmas Tarts, which are pastry squares folded into a pinwheel with a dollop of jam in the middle.
Christmas Eve breakfast starts with rice pudding, which is a Finnish tradition. Lunch for us was just something small because we had to make sure there was lots of room for dinner. The table was decorated just as it would be in Australia except there were no bon bons! (If I’d known I would have brought some with me.)
Dinner was eaten in several phases. First we helped ourselves to the “lighter” foods including a green salad, salmon caviar, smoked salmon, maustesilli (pickled raw fish), sinappi-silli (raw herring with mustard), rosolli (beetroot and apple salad), rye bread, olives and egg.
Then it was time to get serious. The kinkku (Christmas ham) was prepared the night before, covering it with mustard and breadcrumbs before cooking it in the oven. It was served with green mushy peas, mustard and tomato sauce. The salmon was filleted and sprinkled with salt and sugar before going in the oven.
There were four different types of casseroles: perunalaatikko (sweetened mashed potato), lanttulaatikko (mashed swede), porkkanalaatikko (carrot and rice) and maksalaatikko (liver). We cheated a little and bought them ready-made, but apparently that’s really common because they are so good anyway. We just popped them in the oven with a lot of butter on top.
We all had several helpings before collapsing on the couch for a break. All the food stayed out because we weren’t done yet. Instead we opened our presents and then went back to the table. Elise and I added an Australian flavours to the table and made jelly slice and lamingtons. I’d brought some of the ingredients from the UK, which was lucky because they don’t have jelly in Finland.
Just as I’d expect in Australia, we had so much leftovers and ate them over the next few days.
So what did I think of Finnish Christmas?
While there will always been some Australian Christmas traditions I’ll miss when I’m not there (mostly cricket and a game of Trivial Pursuit with my family), I preferred some of the traditions I experienced in Finland. My favourite was celebrating on Christmas Eve. Maybe it’s because I was away from home or not with my own family, but Christmas actually seemed relaxing. All the hard work was over by the time we sat down to dinner on December 24 and then we had another two days of eating leftovers and watching movies together. I also really like that the shops are shut for so long. In Australia we seem to treat the shops closing as a huge inconvenience and so many stay open even on Christmas Day. But in Finland we were all forced to put our feet up because there was nothing else to do.
The only disappointment was that I didn’t quite get a White Christmas. I didn’t in Canada or Scotland either, but I was so sure I’d get one here. There was some snow not long after I arrived, but then it rained and washed a lot of it away. It’s a good thing Santa had a car.