Finnish Traditions

Finnish Traditions
(more to be added)
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  • Christmas
  • February 5th – Runeberg’s Day
  • St Valentine’s Day
  • Shrove Tuesday
  • Easter
  • May Day
  • Midsummer

Christmas – ‘Joulu’
The festive season can start as early as mid-November, as venues for pikkujoulu’s get booked up early. These pre-Christmas parties are organised by groups of workers, hobby groups and just about any groups of people who are brought together by their activities.

Restaurants offer Christmas style food for these occasions, starting with glögi or Glogg, mulled wine (or fruity alternative), which may or may not include alcohol (some people have to drive home). Companies and shops also often offer glögi to their customers and staff at the work-place. Alcohol is not acceptable in the Finnish work-place, and even coming back to work after a lunch-time beer would convince your work-mates that you have a problem.

The next notable tradition which appears to be hard-wired into almost every Finnish woman (but is not so enthusiastically met by most of the men) is Joulusiivous (Christmas cleaning). The house must be deep-cleaned, well enough for a visit from the president or some religious leader. Rugs and carpets must be taken out and beaten, windows and floors washed, and even cupboards cleaned and sorted. Apparently, this is a left-over from earlier times when cleaning was not such a regular event, and the house was only given a thorough going-through twice a year – once before the winter-proper set in, and once before the midsummer celebration, when the weather favoured throwing open all the doors and windows.

However, as both parents in a Finnish family generally work outside the home these days, Saturday morning is usually the time when things get put back in their place, the house gets vaccuumed and the floors get washed; and as dishwashers usually keep on top of the crockery, washing machines take care of the daily laundry, and modern materials in general are much easier to keep clean and hygenic, the need for deep-cleaning before Christmas has largely disappeared.

After cleaning, it is time for decorating for Christmas, and by European standards this is fairly minimal, although red Christmas-curtains and candle-lights in the windows are common. Also, as technology advances, many other kinds of decorative outside lights are appearing. Guests will be greeted by large outside candles in the garden, and these also appear outside shop doors.

Inside the house there is little decoration apart from the tree itself, which is either a real or synthetic fir. The tree is adorned, but not so much as in the USA, for example; (one can still see the tree underneath the tinsel and lights). Christmas cards (which are usually of postcard size and format) are displayed on shelves or cupboards. Chrismas card lists are generally quite a bit shorter than in the UK.

As everybody knows, Joulupukki (Santa Claus) doesn’t live at the North Pole, but in a village called Korvatunturi in eastern Finnish Lapland (68° 04′ 27″ N, 29° 19′ 35″ E). He has moved with the times, and not only has a postal address but several websites (for example:- – from here you can link to his other sites and to the main reception centre in Rovaniemi).

Santa is a busy chap, so he can’t deliver to all the world’s good children in one day; this is probably why Scandinavian children are visited by him sometime after the late Christmas lunch on Christmas Eve (24th December). The traditional lunch can include include ham (this is by far the most popular, although turkeys are making inroads into the market), freshly salted salmon; potato, carrot and liver casseroles; served with potatoes, gravy and whatever else the family likes. Missing from the table are crackers, paper hats etc.

After lunch, the kids go crazy waiting for Santa to come, which rarely happens before it’s completely dark. Eventually, he arrives in person and asks if there are any good children in the house (which, of course, he knows already – or he wouldn’t be there). Many children have also rehearsed a short song, which they sing for him. Presents are wrapped in standard western Christmas paper, but there are no labels on them indicating their origin – they all come from Santa – and adults just exchange enquiring looks when trying to locate the real donors.

Everything after Santa’s visit is a bit of an anti-climax, and Christmas Day itself is just one of rest, except for those who like to visit the church, as services can start as early as 6 am!

February 5th – Runeberg’s Day

Johan Ludvig Runeberg (5 February 1804, Jakobstad – 6 May 1877, Porvoo) was a Finland-Swedish poet, and is held to be the national poet of Finland. Many of his poems deal with life in rural Finland. The best known of these is Bonden Paavo, (Farmer Paavo, Saarijärven Paavo in Finnish), about a smallholding peasant farmer in the poor parish of Saarijärvi and his determination, “sisu” (guts) and unwavering faith in providence in the face of a harsh climate and years of bad harvests. Each year he mixes double the amount of bark into his bread to stave off starvation and gives what he can to his neighbors.

Runeberg’s most famous work is Fänrik Ståls sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål, Vänrikki Stoolin tarinat in Finnish) written between 1848 and 1860. It is considered the greatest Finnish epic poem outside the native Kalevala tradition and contains tales of the Finnish War of 1808-09 with Russia. In the war, Sweden lost Finland, which became a Grand Duchy of the Russian empire. The poem emphasizes the common humanity of all sides in the conflict, while principally lauding the heroism of the Finns. The first poem “Vårt land”, (Our Land, Maamme in Finnish) became the Finnish National Anthem. Runeberg is celebrated on the 5th of February each year, and these tarts are served in his honour.


St Valentine’s Day – ‘Ystävän Päivä’

The 14th of February, St Valentine’s Day, is celebrated in Finland as Ystävän Päivä (Friends’ Day), and holds none of the romantic conotations as it does in the UK and USA. It is simply a day to send cards to friends, and to wish each other ‘Happy Friends’ Day’.

Shrove Tuesday – ‘Laskiaistiistai’

Shrove Tuesday is celebrated often by the lighting of a bonfire, in this case fuelled by cast-off Christmas trees stored for the purpose since the holiday season. This bonfire is actually on the sea ice some distance from the shore. The tradition ride on the right was also set up for the event. Powered by children, the sled on the pole provides a speedy and exciting ride. The children take turns in the sled, and there are always volunteers to push.
Click HERE for more pictures.

Easter – ‘Pääsiäinen’

Easter in Finland is a mix of traditions brought together for the religious festival. Borrowed from an old spring festival are the cutting and decorating of pussy willows. The children decorate them mainly with coloured feathers, then dress up as witches, paint their faces to match and then, on Saturday morning, go door to door in a version of trick-or-treat, exchanging the willows for for sweets, small toys or coins. Another tradition is Easter Grass, which is grown from seed on trays or plates, usually at school. The container is then decorated, a fluffy yellow chick added, and the whole thing brought home on the last day of school. Easter eggs are also a standard; either empty or hard-boiled egg shells are decorated with paint and pens and displayed on the kitchen table, they are not rolled down hills or along the lawn as in some cultures (maybe because there is usually still snow on the ground at this time). Easter cards are not really in evidence, nor are presents. A special treat called mämmi (a kind of malt pudding) is bought or prepared, and served with cream and sugar.

May Day – ‘Vappu’

May 1st, as in most of the Socialist world, is the ‘workers’ day’, and here in Finland, on the morning of May 1st, there are indeed trade-union marches and political speeches. However, the day has also been hi-jacked by students, originally from the polytechnics, but now from all higher education institutes. The students wear ‘overalls’ decorated with local sponsorship emblems from major industries. There are a great many white hats in evidence, and these are worn by graduates from High School; fancier hats still are worn by even more highly educated students. All over Finland the market squares are full of stalls selling food, toys, sweets etc. Visually, the image is of helium balloons, tinsel, white hats, hair decorated with crazy spray-on colours, some in fancy dress, and a lot of fun. The celebration also coincides with the beginning of spring proper, by which I mean that sometimes it is ‘T-shirts on the terrace’ kind of weather (but sometimes it can snow – it depends on the weather ;-).

Another great tradition from ‘Vappu’ is parades. These are varied, but definitely include drive-through’s of classic American cars, antique cars and motorbikes (this being the beginning of the biking season). The participants of these parades are numbered in the hundreds.

Midsummer – ‘Juhannus’

This is arguably the most important festival for most Finns. Whatever the weather there is a mass exodus from the towns and cities to summer cottages (which most Finns have access to). It is held on the first Saturday after the summer solstice, but in reality it lasts many days, often beginning people’s summer holiday. Most people leave work early already on the Thursday, pack the trailer and get going. Shops are open only till about 1 p.m. on the Friday, as the staff also want to escape. The Friday traffic jams are legendary in some bottlenecks, especially going north from Helsinki. It is primarily a family holiday where all generations come together from far and wide, often travelling back from abroad if necessary. The whole point is to create a sort of back-to-nature feeling; wood-fired saunas are lit, charcoal grills fired up, swimming costumes and light summer clothing is worn (even if the temperature doesn’t always support this). Most cottages are by lakes or the sea, so there is much swimming and sailing, and enjoying the ‘nightless night’. Many stay up very late, perhaps even enjoying a dawn walk before collasing into bed. It is around this time that young people may have their first romance, and that older ones may rekindle dwindling flames.

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