Around the world, Christmas is a holiday celebrated in over 160 countries. Due to the diversity of cultures, different countries have different traditions. Christmas in Finland has several similarities with American Christmas. However, there are a few traditions that Finns have that seem kind of odd compared to what those in the United States are used to.
Most countries celebrate Christmas on Christmas Day, December 25th. Finns, however, have the highlight of their celebrating on Christmas Eve. In Turku, which used to be the capital of Finland, there is a ceremony held to celebrate “Christmas peace.” It begins at noon on Christmas Eve and lasts for twenty days. This tradition dates back to the 13th century. Citizens are wished a merry Christmas and encouraged to be peaceful instead of noisy or rowdy.
Finland is a rather secular country, but the celebration of Christmas is still very profound compared to several other Christian countries. On December 24th, public transportation and stores are closed down. Some attend the Christmas Eve service at their church. In Finland it gets dark around 3:00, so it’s also fairly common for Finns to visit cemeteries and light candles on their deceased family members’ graves, similar to Dia de los Muertos in Mexico.
People who don’t go to a graveyard on Christmas Eve may end up going to a sauna. They enjoy bathing and relaxing before attending the festivities of the evening. Going to the sauna on Christmas is an ancient tradition in Finland. The rural folks believed that the spirits of their dead ancestors came to bathe in the sauna after sunset. Saunas were believed to be a holy place where many important acts of life were carried out — from giving birth to dying and treating and healing of sicknesses. Also today, the sauna in Finland is a symbol for purity.
The children of Finland believe in Santa, just like the kids in America do. However, they tend to call him joulupukki, the Finnish Santa Claus. Joulupukki used to mean “Christmas Goat,” because it was traditional in Finland that there was Yule Goat who was scary and asked people for presents. Over time this became the gift giver, who eventually became Santa. However, the name Christmas Goat stuck with him. They believe that Santa lives in the north part of Finland called Korvatunturi (or Lapland), north of the Arctic Circle. People from all over the world actually send their letters to Santa to Finland. There’s even a theme park called Christmas Land, close to where Father Christmas is said to live.
Christmas Day is usually spent quietly at home, relaxing and resting. Some people may go to the early morning church service. Once it’s the evening, families come together to have their Christmas dinner. The typical Christmas meal is a pork leg served with mashed potatoes. Casseroles with vegetables, salmon, and turkey are also very common. Their dessert is baked rice pudding eating with spiced plum jam. An almond is hidden in one pudding. Whoever finds the almond will be lucky during the next year.
Children love Christmas, and most adults have fond memories of the holidays from their childhood. Unless, that is, they had some kind of tragedy or trauma during the season. Regardless, the more religious families will read aloud the gospel of Christmas by St. Luke, The youngest and most literate child tends to read this gospel if there is one present. Their intention for this is to remember the true meaning of Christmas.
After they finish their meal, it’s possible that Santa may come by the house. Since he is believed to live in Finland, he doesn’t have to travel far to deliver the gifts to Finnish people. If he does visit, he will usually ask if there are children in the house. Then he asks if they’ve been good for the year. Of course, they reply with yes, so they are given their presents. After they are given their gifts, the family watches them open them. Once the fun is over and all of the presents have been opened, everyone goes to bed.
Like several other countries, Finnish people celebrate Boxing Day the day after Christmas. Some people enjoy going out and doing activities such as skiing or skating if there is a flat terrain or a frozen river or lake. Other Finns spend the day visiting with their families. It used to be tradition in rural areas, the Finns would take horse drawn sleigh rides on Boxing Day. This is because Boxing Day is also known as St. Stephen’s Day. St. Stephen was a patron saint of horses. There are some horse farms and riding schools that provide horse riding or sleigh rides for Boxing Day.
Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day are all public holidays in Finland. People tend to take leave from work until after New Year’s to spend time with their friends and families. Like in America, in early January, the kids start school again.
All in all, Christmas in Finland actually isn’t that different than it is in America. Both countries encourage their children to believe in Santa, have dinner with their families, buy gifts, and have a great celebration. However, Finns tend to have more of a celebration on Christmas Eve. Also, Americans don’t usually go to graveyards or saunas to celebrate the holidays. Either way, Christmas is a great holiday with great traditions, and the fact that different countries have different traditions to celebrate makes it even more special.