Christmas in Finland – presenting traditions and food

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For many Finns, Christmas is still one of the most important holiday of the year. Families usually get together and settle to enjoy common traditions together. In this blog post, I will tell you a little more about Finnish traditions, their history, food and how I usually spend this holiday myself.
Santa claus and children in Christmas morning in Finland

History of Christmas

Christmas is a celebration both very old and also important all over the world. In Christianity, it is a celebration to commemorate the birth of Jesus, but especially in recent decades, the celebration has changed its form and, above all, has become so-called commercialized.

The Finnish word “joulu” is not a Christian expression due to its origin, but it is a loan word from the Iron Age and a remnant of the ancient Scandinavian languages ​​from the 500s to the 650s. The same fact applies  also to word jul, which is used in Norwegian, Swedish and Danish languages, and jõulud, which is used in Estonian.

The ancient Nordic version jól, is still in use in the Icelandic language. According to some linguists, this means either translation or rebirth. Originally, the word Christmas meant a pagan celebration of midwinter, and the word celebration, which originated in the Germanic languages ​​earlier, has the same tradition. Today, however, Christmas refers to a Christian celebration.

Christmas in Finnish folklore

Christmas elf in Finland
It is believed that elves are watching us through the windows and reporting to Santa about our behaviour © Kimmo Syväri | Visit Finland

Unlike many other countries, the most important day of Christmas in Finland is on the eve of December 24, while elsewhere Christmas is mainly celebrated on Christmas Day, December 25. In Finland, the celebration ends with the Epiphany in January.

The Saint Knutt’s Day in January has also played an important role in Finnish folklore, to which Christmas has been considered to end according to old regulations. This is also indicated by the old adage, which says: “Good Thomas brought Christmas with him, an evil Nuutti took it away.” 

Under the old laws, the Christmas peace lasted for 20 days, beginning on December 21, the name day of Thomas, and ending on January 13, the day of Knutt.

Christmas traditions in Finland

Joulupäivällinen
In Finland it is traditional to gather around a dinner table with your loved ones. © Jussi Hellstén | Visit Finland

Many of the Finnish Christmas traditions have remained the same for decades, and many Finns want to preserve their own beloved traditions from generation to generation.

Finnish longer-term traditions include visiting the Christmas sauna and church, visiting the cemetery on the eve, listening to Christmas carols, opening the Christmas calendar, lighting Advent candles, searching for a Christmas tree, decorating the home, visit of Santa Claus and enjoying traditional food with the family and loved ones.

The declaration of Christmas peace has also become one of the most well known traditions of Christmas eve. The most famous declaration in Finland will take place at Turku’s Old Market Square at 12.00. As of this declaration, Christmas peace is valid for 20 days onwards. It is a tradition that has been repeated since the 17th century and is designed to make people respect the celebration of midwinter by their own behavior.

It is possible to follow the legendary Turku Christmas Peace Declaration on radio, television and the Internet. In connection with the Declaration of Peace, songs such as God is our Castle, the National anthem of Finland and the March of Pori, which all have a great significance in Finnish patriotic culture, will be heard.

The celebration of Christmas Eve itself varies a lot these days, but in general, the celebration contains a lot of atmosphere and traditions, which is created by, for example, many candles, yard lights either in the form of outdoor blazes, or snowball and ice lanterns. The interiors of the homes, on the other hand, are decorated with many decorations and a Christmas tree that has the role of the center of attention. The tree can be either searched from the forest, bought from a professional seller or, more and more nowadays, plastic bought from a store.

Christmas Eve also includes a sauna, preferably in a traditional wood-heated sauna. Contrary to normal evening sauna, the time of the sauna may be as early as the morning or during the day. Families gathered together during the eve also have a lot of other fun together before the actual festivities of the eve, ie a dinner and Santa’s visit with gifts.

While Christmas is also an important celebration for many adults, children are of course the most important. Indeed, with children in the house, you often need to come up with many fun activities during the eve, as kids are eagerly looking forward to the evening and Santa’s visit even for days. Baking gingerbread or decorating a spruce can keep the little ones in the family busy enough and shift thoughts away from the evening itself.

It is a fairly common traditional that kids need to wake up early in the morning of 24th to watch Santa’s Hot Line on TV. The program on Yle TV 2 has been broadcasted annually since 1991. For us born in the 1980s, Santa’s Hot Line, has had a huge role as a Christmas tradition.

Another Finnish Christmas program worth mentioning is definitely Mauri Kunnas’ Santa Claus and the Magic Drum, which is currently also shown on Yle’s channels on Christmas Eve.

In some families, the youngest children may receive gifts even before the big Christmas dinner, but it is an old tradition to eat first and wait for Santa to visit until the evening. Gifts will also be distributed during the visit.

In many families, the eve also includes a visit to the cemeteries to remember loved ones and relatives who have already passed away. In the evening or often middle of night, many people head to the Christmas church.

Christmas tree and decorations

Joulukuusi
Decorating the Christmas tree has a huge part in Finnish traditions © Jussi Hellstén | Visit Finland

There is not just one opinion about the origins of the Christmas tree; however, according to many stories, the spruce tradition dates back to 16th-century Germany. The spruces were still small at the time and were either hung on the ceiling or placed on the table.

This tradition spread among the nobles in the Nordic countries in the 19th century and thus also in Finland. In the early days, the Christmas tree was decorated with candles, paper chains, straw decorations, gingerbread and flag ribbons. Today, safer electric lights are replacing traditional candles and various Christmas balls have gained great popularity. Either a star or an angel is usually hung on the top of a spruce.

It has been the custom in the Finnish Christmas tradition for the tree to be fetched from one’s own forest, mainly by the father of the family and the children. In recent decades, however, the tradition has changed and nowadays trees are more and more often bought from a Christmas tree seller. Over the last decade, plastic trees have also developed to look much more natural, and the popularity of plastic spruce has grown in Finland year by year.

Other more traditional Christmas decorations include dimmers and straw sticks. The decorations made of straw were made during the harvest, i.e. the harvest. Barley and oat sheaves were also offered to small birds in the yard – according to Finnish folklore, this method was intended to make the birds leave the grain of the coming summer alone.

Traditional Christmas foods

Jouluruoka pöydässä
The traditional Christmas dinner table contains at least ham © Jani Kärppä | Visit Finland

Food is of great importance in the Finnish Christmas tradition, and the meals of the day are usually started with eating rice porridge. Traditionally, an almond may also be added to the porridge, and it gets good luck getting it on a plate. Christmas porridge is usually eaten with cinnamon, sugar and butter.

During the Christmas season, evenings are often spent in Finland, enjoying gingerbread and glog (mulled wine). Enthusiasts of baking and crafts, in turn, may be enthusiastic about building gorgeous gingerbread houses. Many Christmas-related events also feature gingerbread baking and decorating competitions, where avid bakers get to show off their own skills.

In the late afternoon or just in the evening, enjoy a traditional Christmas meal. The timing of dinner varies a lot between families: some may eat a Christmas meal early in the afternoon, while some other families may not be sitting at the table until late in the evening.

One tradition before eating can be reading the Christmas gospel from the Bible (Luke 2) and singing Christmas carols together, usually accompanied by a piano.

The purpose of the Christmas meal is to eat a lot, slowly and spend a relaxing time at the table with family and loved ones. Rushing isn’t good at the dining table and there is no point thinking about your lines either, this grief only comes later.

The most important food on the Finnish Christmas table is the ham, of which the cooking part has been made into a kind of art. For cooking lovers, cooking the Christmas ham might be something that you wait for months in advance.

Other traditional Christmas dishes include various casseroles, such as a carrot and swede casserole. Of the traditional alternatives, lutefisk has lost its popularity in recent years, while the opinion about rosolli salad is strongly divided. In terms of fish dishes, gravlax has taken a strong foothold as a Christmas table favorite.

Piparkakut, eli piparit
Gingerbread cookies are traditional Christmas delicacies in Finland © Lauri Kivikataja | Visit Finland

The most traditional desserts are plum jelly and the aforementioned gingerbread cookies and damson plum jam. Today, chocolate also has a strong position among Finnish Christmas delicacies.

The Christmas meal has been supportive throughout its history and this tradition is linked to the cycle of the agricultural year. A hearty meal and eating meat were once a rare luxury, as at that time the food was mainly produced by themselves. In the old days, at the end of a Christmas meal, it was especially important to leave the Christmas food on the table for the night, and in this way thank the elf living in the house, who also got to enjoy the table at night.

Finnish Christmas carols

Kauneimmat joululaulut
Many Christmas carol singing events are arranged in churces in Finland. © Keskisuomalainen

Christmas carols will be heard on Finnish radio channels and in the street scene during November at the latest. This tradition, like everything else related to Christmas, seems to be advancing year by year. Fortunately, one tradition related to Christmas carols seems to remain the same: traditional and older Christmas carols have succeeded very well in terms of holding their  popularity among Finns.

Christmas carols are a very essential part of Finnish Christmas celebration and anticipation. Of the individual songs, the sad Varpunen jouluaamuna (sparrow in the Christmas morning), written by Sakari Topelius, has been one of Finland’s favorites for decades. Same applies to Näin sydämeeni joulun teen by Kassu Halonen and Vexi Salmi and Tulkoon joulu by Pekka Simojoki. Many also name Sylvia’s Christmas carol (Sylvian joululaulu) as their favorite, for example. Of the newer production Suvi Teräsniska‘s song “Mummo” deserves a special mention.

The popularity of Christmas carols is also indicated by the fact that many of the top Finnish artists have worked on at least one album of Christmas carols during their careers. In addition, many Finnish artists tour to perform in churches, for example, and Christmas carols are also on the agenda at that time.

One of my own favorites as an interpreter of Christmas carols is the strong voiced and multi-talented Vesa-Matti Loiri, whose interpretation, for example, of Tonttu (elf) and Näin sydämeeni joulun teen, make emotions rise to the surface time and time again.

Many foreign Christmas carols are also popular with Finns. For example, Wham!‘s Last Christmas has been one of Finland’s favorites for many years. Other songs worth mentioning that get a lot of radio time include John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) and Mariah Carey’s interpretation of All I Want For Christmas Is You.

The atmosphere of Christmas is often tuned in Finland for weeks by organizing various The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs events, where the songs are gathered either to sing or listen together with a larger group. Such events can be held, for example, in churches or other public spaces that can accommodate more people at a time.

Finnish Christmas movies

Joulupukki
Santa Claus has been the main character in many movies. © Kimmo Syväri | Visit Finland

Probably the best known of the Finnish Christmas films is still Santa Claus and the Magic Drum, which was already mentioned earlier. Over the last ten years or so, however, supply in this field has also diversified.

The Christmas story, which premiered in 2007, tells the story of Santa’s childhood and how he eventually became Santa.

The Christmas story was by far the most watched domestic film in 2007 and it returned to cinemas in November 2008 as well. Just five weeks after its premiere, the film had garnered nearly 220,000 viewers. In total, the film was watched in theaters more than 267 thousand times.

The Christmas story was also received quite positively abroad when it was screened at the Berlin Film Festival. Within a few days, the Christmas Story was also sold to more than a dozen other countries and made into a dubbed version in English.

In April 2008, Christmas Story was awarded at the Sarasota Film Festival in Florida, USA. The film won the Audience Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

In 2008, the Finnish-Danish-Irish-German computer animation film Niko & The Way to the Stars, which tells the story of Niko, reindeer calf, premiered. The animation, which also became very popular elsewhere in Europe, received a sequel called Niko 2 – Pilot Brothers in October 2012.

A slightly different kind of Christmas genre is represented by Rare Exports: A Christmas tale, who portrays Santa Claus as a dangerous and violent character. The Christmas Story, made from a different perspective, also received a great reception in the world, where it managed to collect numerous international awards. At Rotten Tomatoes, as much as 90% of the feedback the film has received has been positive.

Christmas calendars

Christmas calendars can refer to either calendars that can be opened or scratched during December, or programs that are shown on television, mainly for children.

Among the various Christmas calendars, e.g. toy or chocolate calendars which, as the name implies, contain toys as well as chocolate. For the slightly older population, on the other hand, there are, for example, scratch-off calendars, where you can win money or other valuable prizes. The most famous of which is probably the Snow Lantern Christmas calendar.

Various Christmas calendar programs have been shown on television for decades. The most well-known domestic programs include, for example, the Histamine’s Christmas Calendar presented in the 1980s, and the Elf Toljanteri presented on Yle’s channels from 1998 to 2013.

For us children of the 1980s, the most significant calendar is The Joulukalenteri, first shown in 1997, which returned to the show on Subtv for the first time in 2007 and later in 2017-2019.

Christmas parties

Glögi on joulunajan juhlajuoma
Glögi is a traditional holiday drink in Finland © Visit Finland

The little Christmas parties also play an important role, especially in the anticipation of Christmas in Finland. It is a free-form, often Christmas-themed celebration before the actual holidays, usually organized by various communities, such as workplaces, groups of friends, associations and the like.

Celebrating a little Christmas often differs from the actual celebration of holidays with its free-form and less devotion than the actual celebration. Today, Finnish Christmas is often associated with, among other things, heavy alcohol consumption, which is why parties also play an important role in Finnish humor.

Traditionally, for the first time a year, various Christmas dishes are offered at small parties, especially rice porridge and mulled wine aka glögi.

The roots of these parties stem from the celebration of Advent, which means the anticipation of Christ, as well as the fast that ends at Christmas.

The actual celebration of Christmas parties began in Helsinki, after the Second World War.

In Finnish homes, Christmas is probably due to the way in which St. Thomas, on December 21, got to taste the self-brewed beer. In Sweden, the evening of that day was called Christmas Eve. Over time, the tradition has developed into a Lucia festival, which plays a significant role in our neighboring country, and whose style still resembles a Finnish little Christmas.

Christmas opening events and markets

Joulumarkkinat Turussa
Many different Christmas markets are organized in Finland © Visit Finland

Various Christmas opening events and markets are usually organized throughout Finland during November.

In Rovaniemi, Christmas will be opened in the Arctic Circle with a live event in Santa Claus Village. The event traditionally begins with a music concert and culminates in Santa’s speech as well as the elves ’disco that follows. In Ranua, the Christmas opening event is the Gingerbread Market, which is held at the Peura Sports Hall.

In Helsinki, the opening of the Christmas season is traditionally held on Aleksanterinkatu. The most significant attraction of the event, which has a lot to do with the program, is the lighting of the magnificent Christmas lights, which also begins the official anticipation of the holiday. The lighting of Aleksanterinkatu lights has been arranged in the pipe for more than 70 years, which is a very long tradition.

The year 2020 was also exceptional in terms of Christmas opening events, and in Rovaniemi, for example, a traditional event was held remotely. It was possible to follow the broadcast e.g. Visit Rovaniemi‘s Facebook page.

How do I spend Christmas?

Christmas is my personal favorite of the individual holidays and my own Christmas celebration has many long-standing traditions.

Such traditions have included finding a Christmas tree with my father and siblings, visiting a local cemetery in the evening to light candles in memory of those who have already passed. Before handing out Christmas presents in the evening, we tend to have the whole family eating at the same table.

Santa used to leave presents on the porch of our home for a few years, but now that three grandchildren are also going along, the father Christmas has also been visiting us properly for the last couple of years.

All of my long-standing traditions are things for me that can only be experienced once a year. This is for me the reason why I would like our whole family to come together under the same roof every year.

The meaning of Christmas has also changed shape over the years. As a child, I remembered waiting for Christmas mainly for gifts and a large number of delicacies, but nowadays holiday season means to me being with my family and a time when I can breathe for even a few days in the middle of a busy and stressful everyday life.

In addition to the domestic Christmas, I have spent 2017 and 2018 in Argentina, where the celebration of the holiday is for the most part very different from ours. It is quite pointless to talk about Christmas peace in Latin America in particular, as the holiday is celebrated with loud music and fireworks, for example.

Sources and about the subject elsewhere (in Finnish): Martat | Jouluruoka K-Ruoka | Suomalainen joulu Yle | Supisuomalainen joulu

The main image of the article: Lauri Kivikataja | Visit Finland

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