Finn Christmas traditions date back centuries

HANCOCK — In Finland, there are many Christmas traditions going back centuries, some of which have survived to the present, and some of which may be recognized by Finnish Americans.

Jim Kurtti, director of the Finlandia University Finnish American Heritage Center on Quincy Street in Hancock, said Finnish traditions involve food, music, decorations and the Finnish version of Santa Claus.

Much of the holiday celebrating actually happens on Christmas Eve, Kurtti said.

“On Christmas Eve, the mayor of Turku reads the Christmas Proclamation,” he said.

The proclamation goes back to the 1300s in Finland, Kurtti said. In 1935, the mayor of Turku began the tradition of reading the proclamation on radio. Now, it’s on radio and television at noon on Christmas Eve.

After hearing the proclamation, which calls for peace in the country, Kurtti said the next activity is a Christmas sauna.

“That’s when Christmas begins,” he said.

People who don’t absolutely need to be at work take Christmas Eve off, Kurtti said.

“Even the public transit shuts down,” he said.

There are traditional Christmas decorations in Finland, Kurtti said.

“They like homemade ornaments,” he said. “Traditionally they were made out of straw.”

The ornaments are made to look like snow flakes (Called himmeli, a very large version of which is hanging in the community room of the FAHC), goats and various other shapes. Mobiles made from the long curly wood shavings are also popular. Crosses made from very thin shavings of softwoods, such as pine and fir, are also popular.

“You have to have a very straight grain (to make the crosses),” he said. “They’re quite hard to make.”

Also on Christmas Eve, Kurtti said many people go to cemeteries after dark to honor their deceased relatives with candles on their graves. At some cemeteries, there may be thousands of candles.

“The whole place is lit,” he said. “That’s really something.”

On Dec. 13, Kurtti said Saint Lucia is honored. That tradition is a carryover from Sweden.

Saint Lucia was a Catholic martyr from fourth century Italy. The tradition is borrowed in Finland, and girls and young women all over the country are chosen in their communities to represent her and wear a crown of candles, which now are battery-powered for safety.

Santa Clause makes an appearance on Christmas Eve, also, Kurtti said. The person representing Santa wears a coat inside out and carries a stick when he comes to children’s homes in the daylight hours.

“He would always ask if there are any good kids here,” Kurtti said.

Children would go to Santa one at a time, and bow before getting a gift from him.

“It was very formal,” he said.

Although Santa Claus is a tradition in many North European countries, Kurtti said the Finns lay claim to him.

“The Finns contend Santa’s from Finland,” he said.

The short, chubby, red garment-wearing version of Santa was created by the Coca-Cola company in 1931, and Kurtti said that creation was made by a Finnish American.

Food is an important part of the traditional Finnish Christmas, especially on Christmas Eve when many Finns have ham and casseroles made from potatoes, rutabaga, liver or rice.

“That’s kind of the staple traditional Christmas Eve dinner,” he said.

There are some traditional Finnish Christmas songs, Kurtti said. Also sung are songs from other countries that have been translated to Finnish.

Even some critters get Christmas presents in Finland, Kurtti said. Stalks of grain are bundles and left outside.

“It’s kind of a Christmas gift for the birds,” she said.

Although many local Finnish Americans are several generations removed form Finland, Kurtti said some do honor the traditions from the old country.

“I think people are bringing them back,” he said.