The Finnish Christmas spirit can be experienced everywhere, whether you are in the north, south, east or west of the country that is 1160 kilometers long and 540 kilometers wide. The Finnish holiday season consists of many things, including the anticipation of Christmas, snow, the warmth and light created by a real fire, the hunt for a Christmas tree and the moments spent decorating it, old-fashioned sleigh rides, rides on a sled pulled by reindeer or dogs or modern snowmobile safaris, skiing, ice skating, bobsledding, traditional Christmas food, Saint Lucy’s Day, the Star Boys tradition, Christmas markets, the declaration of Christmas peace, Christmas church and of course Santa Claus and the Christmas games played at school.
Around Christmas time, many Finns wish to help those in need. The Salvation Army kettles have been seen on the busiest streets of Finnish cities since 1906. Every year the Santa Claus Foundation also donates a gift to the children of the world.
Americans are used to hearing Santa say “Ho, ho, ho!” when he enters the room, but the Finnish Santa asks instead “Are there any well-behaved kids here?” The Finnish Santa respects the Finnish traditions and values related to Christmas. The elves are everywhere around Christmas time, listening and observing if the kids are being nice. After all, it is Santa’s main responsibility to spread goodwill around the world.
Finns set up and decorate their Christmas trees by the morning of Christmas Eve. Neighbors and acquaintances are sometimes visited briefly to give them Christmas flowers and greetings. A big oat sheaf is placed outside for the birds and seeds are added to the bird feeder.
The actual celebration of Finnish Christmas starts at noon on Christmas Eve. This is when the Declaration of Christmas Peace is broadcast from the former Finnish capital of Turku via television and radio. When the bells of the Turku Cathedral strike twelve times, the declaration based on medieval Nordic legislation is read out loud from an old-fashioned parchment scroll, advising devotion and quiet behavior and wishing a joyous Christmas to all. The declaration is followed by the national anthem and the hymn “Jumala ompi linnamme” (“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”). At this point even the most modern Finn gets into the Christmas spirit.
After the Declaration of Christmas Peace, families gather together to eat Christmas porridge. The Finnish Christmas porridge is made of rice with an almond hidden in the mixture. The person who gets the almond is believed to be particularly successful the following year.
As it gets darker, Finns often visit cemeteries to light a candle in memory of their loved ones, thus turning a dark cemetery into a beautiful sea of candles. Visiting the graves on Christmas Eve became a tradition after the war when candles were first lit at the war graves. Nowadays, nearly half of the Finnish population visits the graves of their deceased relatives at Christmas time. Many Finns also attend the Christmas Eve service at the church.
Finnish Christmas is not complete without a sauna. Seventy percent of Finns take a sauna on Christmas Eve. It is customary to leave the sauna for a while and cool off outdoors. If you’re not scared of the cold, you can even roll in the snow. See Christmas sauna
In the early evening, it is finally time to enjoy Christmas dinner. The traditional Christmas dinner usually includes reading the Christmas Story from the Bible and singing a hymn. The table is set with the finest tablecloth, dishes and napkins. The entire family gathers around the Christmas table and spends a long time enjoying the food and drinks. There is an old Finnish saying that at Christmas one is allowed to eat even at night. See Christmas food
The Christmas dinner may be the highlight of Christmas for adults, but for the children the most important moment follows shortly after the meal. The excitement usually passes from children to adults and no one can wait to hear the familiar sounds from the hallway indicating that Santa has arrived. At this point, many families welcome Santa by singing a traditional carol: “Joulupukki, joulupukki, valkoparta vanha ukki. Eikö taakka paina selkää, käypä tänne emme pelkää…” which means in English: “Santa Claus, Santa Claus, you white-bearded old fellow, is the load not too heavy on your back, come here, we are not afraid…”
As Santa enters the room, he asks “Are there any well-behaved kids here?” After hearing the children’s answer, which, of course, is to the affirmative, Santa sits down to chat for a while and sings a song or two with the family. The bravest kids climb on Santa’s lap. Finally, Santa opens his large sack and hands out the gifts. Then it is time for Santa to move on to the next home and continue his journey until he has delivered all his gifts and is ready to return to his home in Lapland.
Gifts are an important part of Christmas Eve, especially for children, but in many homes the evening is also spent singing Christmas carols, watching TV or listening to the radio. Some families also attend the Christmas church service.
In Finland, Christmas Day is generally spent at home with the family. Children play with their new toys and board games while adults relax and listen to music, read books or just rest and enjoy the peaceful Christmas time. People usually only leave home to go to church.
The Christmas Day service is held early in the morning and the churches look beautiful when lit with candles. In the old days, families drove to the Christmas church in a sleigh pulled by a horse. On their way back, they raced against each other. The winner was believed to have the best luck with the next year’s harvest.
The sleigh was usually full of people with some standing on the runners. The bells jingled on the horse’s harness. Even today, Finns go to church on Christmas Day in large numbers, but many prefer to go the day before, on Christmas Eve. All in all, even people who almost never go to church usually do so at Christmas time.
Epiphany, which falls on the 6th of January, is a holiday that marks the end of the Christmas season. The Christmas tree is stripped and taken out, the gingerbread house is eaten and the Christmas food leftovers are consumed.
Santa and his elves know numerous Christmas carols and related games because children love to sing and play at Christmas. Santa does not have the time to learn all of the new carols, but luckily his musical elves are always up to date. In Santa’s workshop you can hear humming behind every shelf and cupboard.
Finns sing carols in churches as well as in various other places. One of the most loved Finnish carols is “Joulupukki, joulupukki” written by P. J. Hannikainen over a hundred years ago. Other popular songs include “Maa on niin kaunis” which is originally a German melody and the hymn “En etsi valtaa loistoa” composed by Jean Sibelius with lyrics written by Sakari Topelius.
A sauna has always been a sacred place for Finns. In the old days, a sauna was the place where babies were born and sauna peace was safeguarded by the sauna elf. It is also said that the deceased were given time to enjoy the warmth of the sauna as the last person leaving the sauna always threw water on the stones for them and left the door ajar. The sauna was heated early, well before Christmas dinner.
Advent calendars have been used for decades in anticipation of Christmas. The advent calendar helps children count down the days from the 1st through to the 24th of December which is the day when Santa arrives in Finnish homes.
The advent calendar tradition spread from Germany to Finland in the 1910s. In the old times, the entire village would admire the images of one calendar that was often related to the biblical Christmas story. Nowadays, children have at least one advent calendar each with an image, candy or a small gift hidden behind the windows. The pictures often feature Santa, elves, animals or some popular movie characters.
Finns send millions of Christmas cards every year. They are sent to relatives and friends and to the customers and business partners of companies. Christmas cards are usually sent with Christmas stamps attached to them. There are also special Christmas stamps available around Christmas time with the proceeds going to charity.
Finns have always loved receiving Christmas cards. Sometimes piles of old Christmas cards have been stored in the drawers of Finnish homes for decades. Reciprocity has always been highly valued when sending Christmas cards. The most unique and valuable Christmas cards are still home-made.
A fir tree is a suitable Christmas decoration in Finland as this is a country of vast forests. Nearly every Finnish home has a real Christmas tree to create the scent of a forest.
The trees are decorated with candles, flag strings and angels and nowadays also with more modern glittery and multicolored decorations. Sometimes Santa delivers the gifts beforehand to be placed under the Christmas tree so that they can then be given on Christmas Eve.
In addition to the Christmas trees Finns have in their homes, there are also several tall Christmas trees outside stores and in marketplaces for everyone to enjoy. One of the Finnish Christmas traditions is that every year the students of forest sciences donate a Christmas tree to the President of Finland. The City of Helsinki has also donated a Christmas tree to the City of Brussels every other year since 1954.
Christmas streets with colorful lights are opened in many cities around the beginning of Advent. The ceremony usually includes orchestras and speeches. Year after year families come to admire the magnificent Christmas tree set up in a prominent place as well as the atmospheric lights.
Aleksanterinkatu, a street in the heart of Helsinki, has been Finland’s official Christmas street since 1947.
Lighting the advent candles on each Advent Sunday is part of the tradition, making the light of Christmas brighter as we get closer to Christmas. The first candle is lit for expectation, the second for Christmas joy, the third for Christmas peace and the fourth for love.
People want to enjoy the Christmas season as long as possible and therefore they put up their decorations well in advance. Christmas curtains and tablecloths are dug out, yards are decorated with Christmas lights and doors with Christmas wreaths, advent stars and electric candelabras are installed in windows.
Typical decorative motifs include Christmas angels, elves and birds. Candle and flower arrangements are also an essential part of Christmas decorations.
Finns love the bright red poinsettias, fragrant hyacinths and red tulips. Various kinds of arrangements and flower baskets are also popular gifts at Christmas time.
- The elves have rabbit's feet in their pocket for a gentle touch and relieving pain.
- The elves are born of rose-ash, dream weaves, lichen powder, tiny spruce shoots, love and joy.
- The elves love games and their favorite is mouse-back riding.
- The elves come in many sizes. Some of the elves can change their size depending on the situation.
- The elves see everything as they have x-ray vision!
- The elves always have some seaweed in their pocket and flint to make a fire.
- You know that an elf has been in a room if you feel happy and smell a tinge of spruce needles, candle wax, clove and syrup in the air.
- The elves spread happiness and comfort wherever they go.
- Being smaller than a mouse, these elves can move from one place to another without being seen when keeping an eye on the children.
- Santa, Mrs. Claus and the elves come from Korvatunturi in the Finnish Lapland.