Contrary to popular belief, Santa Claus lives in Finland, not the North Pole! Santa Claus lives in Korvatunturi with his wife, Mother Christmas, and the Elves. Lucky for me, Santa decided to come down and visit Helsinki! I even found out that you can send a letter to Santa Claus using this address: Santa Claus, Santa Claus Main Post Office, FI-96930 Arctic Circle!
Being immersed in Finnish Christmas culture, I began to get curious and I started to do some research. I discovered that the Finnish Christmas has its roots in the old pagan harvest feast called kekri, named after the ancient Finnish cattle protector and fertility god. Kekri was celebrated around the end of November, or the end of the harvest season, marking the end of the year in the old agrarian calendar. After Christianity reached Finland in the 12th century, the traditions and habits of kekri began to assimilate with Christian Christmas celebration.
Interestingly enough, Finns celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve on the 24th of December. Shops in Helsinki close for the 25th and the 26th of December, and Christmas in Finland officially ends 13 days after Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, Christmas dinner is typically served between 5 and 7 in the evening in Finland, which traditionally consists of oven-baked ham, rutabaga casserole, beetroot salad, and similar holiday foods. Christmas Eve in Finland is on the also consists of joyful carols and local Christmas songs. The Christmas presents are usually given out in the evening during a personal visit from the local Santa Claus. Other essentials on Christmas Eve in Finland are Christmas mass, and a visit to a Finnish sauna, of course. Unlike on normal days, when going to sauna is in the evening, on Christmas Eve it is before sunset. This tradition is based on a pre-20th century belief that the spirits of the dead return and have a sauna at the usual sauna hours.
Not for the faint-hearted, another popular Finnish wintertime activity is ice swimming. Hardy Finns drill a hole in the ice that covers most Finnish lakes and the Gulf of Finland outside Helsinki in winter, and after a session in a sauna, dip into the ice-cold water for a refreshing swim. Devoted Finns swear that ice-swimming “invigorates the mind and the body, improves circulation and keeps colds and flu’s away”, and in general leads to good health and longevity. This reminds me of the ‘Polar Plunge’ we have in Houghton every spring, where college students and locals run across the frozen Portage and plunge into a hole cut in the ice! Brrrrrr!
Christmas is the biggest festival of the year in Finland, and preparations start weeks in advance. Christmas events in Helsinki include Christmas markets, concerts and special events like outdoor ice skating. The Railway Square (Rautatientori) just outside the Helsinki Railway Station transforms into an Ice Park from November to March. Helsinki’s official Christmas street is Aleksanterinkatu in the centre of the city, and traditional Christmas lights decorate the street from the last week of November. I found out that the Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu are a Finnish tradition that dates back to the 1930s!
In my opinion there could be no better, yet no worse place to be for Christmas. Although the holiday spirit is very alive in Finland and the festivities are wonderful, the outrageous snow is starting to remind me of the horrors of Houghton, and there are constants reminders that I will be spending this Christmas alone this year. To remedy my mood, I chose to make the most of my situation and go to Russia – which is conveniently Orthodox! They will not be celebrating Christmas until January 6th and 7th, making it a perfect time to travel and see Russia in all of its snowy, splendid glory.
I am now preparing for Russia, moving out of my flat in Helsinki, packing all of my belongings for Sweden, and celebrating another successful semester of graduate school!
“Merry Christmas!” or “Hyvää Joulua!” (in Finnish)
Until next year,