Christmas Eve is traditionally the day we Finns celebrate Christmas. We have a number of distinctive customs, many of them a remnant from the earlier pagan celebrations. Perhaps that is why the biggest holidays of the year are Christmas and Summer Solstice.
There's at least five, or six courses of food that you only ever have at Christmas: rutabaga, carrot and sweetened potato casseroles, root and cream salad with pickles, plum stars and ginger snaps, Christmas bread...We sing countless songs compared to the tens of American ones I've heard. We have advent calendars, pre-Christmas parties, radio and TV-programs galore, Tonttu-hats. Christmas is a nationwide craze all through November and December.
Usually the whole family gathers around to decorate the tree and sometimes to fetch it too. Even the most irreligious families (like mine) sing Christmas hymns and have manger scenes (I wish I could share the one I started when I was 6. Mary is a single mom (she wears a red dress and lots of eye-makeup) and Jesus is bi-racial.).
On Christmas morning we traditionally eat a kind of Christmas porridge/pudding and then start baking and cooking the meal. The porridge itself contains a remnant of an older era: an almond secreted in it who's finder can have a wish, reminiscent of the king-making almonds of the Saturnalia and the days of The Lord Of Misrule. In earlier days the almond did indeed signify a change in the social order for a day, making its finder the head of the house for the day, no matter their standing.
Around twilight you can see families congregating at the cemetery where they place candles on the graves of loved ones. It's quite magical to see a whole old cemetery, where the trees are huge and everything is covered in frost and snow, aglow with little lights.
It's only after dinner that we get to opening presents. Whether their brought by Joulupukki (Santa Claus), who's name literally means "Christmas Goat", or simply exchanged, they are usually piled under the tree. Joulupukki himself used to be quite far removed from the jolly, rotund Coca-Cola sponsored fellow he has become.
For one thing, he used to be kind of a wild spirit, a mix of man and goat, possibly a remnant of the animal one slaughtered for winter Solstice celebration, or an earlier fertility rite that took place in January. Also, he was far from benevolent back in the day. Even in my childhood he was just as likely to spank you than to bring you presents.
He was and still is surrounded by the Tonttu, a mythical Finnish creature, who not only appears during Christmas, but used to be the spirit around the house and the barnyard, part responsible and helpful, part mischievous.
The Finnish Christmas lasts a minimum of three days, and was even as recently as my childhood an almost complete shut down of the land. Trains stop running, stores are closed, most restaurants take a couple of days off. There is even such a thing as "Christmas Peace" that the president declares each year. This tradition dates to an earlier era of upheaval and is rooted in the idea that all should strive towards maintaining personal and social order during these few days midwinter.
All this is obviously easier to do if you're a tiny nation where 95% population is Christians, but the thought is well and good regardless of one's faith.
"Joulu" is a time for the family, for reflection and calm, no frenzied driving or travelling. No one has to work, save for nurses, firemen and policemen. And professional Santas, of course.
May your Christmas time be calm and peaceful and full of joy. Hauskaa Joulua!
(All images by Elsa Beskow, a sublime illustrator of the Scandinavian childhood, about whom I have a post coming up.)