The Finland-Swedish community has its own special take on Christmas celebrations.

CHRISTMAS may come but once a year, but it comes in different ways for different peoples. There are many ways of celebrating this festival, and even within a single country there can be a lot of variation. In Finland, the Swedish-speaking community shares many of the national Christmas traditions, but it also has a few twists specific to itself.

Illuminating tradition

The most famous of the Finland-Swedish Christmas traditions is Lucia, a celebration of St. Lucia’s Day, 13 December. In the old calendar, this was the shortest day of the year, which meant the turning of the season and thus that the days would be getting longer again. Unsurprisingly, the name “Lucia” is derived from the Latin for “light”.

The canonical St. Lucia was a Christian martyr from the 3rd century, but in modern observance each community selects a girl to portray Lucia. In some families, she is the eldest daughter, who puts on a white dress and a crown of lingonberry stalks, and wakes the family by serving breakfast of coffee or glögg mulled wine, and saffron-spiced Lucia buns – with the appropriate help from the grownups, of course!

Schools and towns may also select a Lucia, who dons a white gown with a red sash and wears a crown of candles. She leads a procession of women, all clad in white and holding candles, who sing a Lucia song as they go on their way. The traditional song has a Neapolitan melody and lyrics in Swedish describing the light with which Lucia overcomes the darkness.

The largest such procession is led by the official Lucia of Finland, the first of whom, Barbro Reine, was chosen in 1950 by the Folkhälsan community association. The event was supported by Hufvudstadsbladet, the Swedish-language newspaper. Nowadays, other corporate partners include the Swedish-language television station FST, and YLE’s Radio Vega. Aside from its cultural significance, it is also a fundraising event for Folkhälsan’s charitable works.

The current tradition is to crown the year’s Lucia in the Helsinki Cathedral at 5 pm on 13 December. The Lucia procession then winds its way along Aleksanterinkatu to Parliament House and thence to Svenska Teatern, where a party is held. The advertising space on the FORUM shopping centre along Mannerheimintie then sprouts a giant picture of the newest Lucia, who gazes on the busy shopping crowds for the rest of the Christmas season.

Home is where the feast is

Aside from the Lucia celebration, most Christmas traditions are quite private and family-oriented, as tends to be the case in the Nordic nations. It is a time for the family to get together, as the young visit their elders, and it is when grandparents get to spoil the little ones!

“The Swedish-speaking
community shares
many of the national
Christmas traditions,
but it also has a few
twists specific to itself.”

Christmas trees are usually set up a couple of days before the day itself, and although nowadays the usual plastic tat is all too common, there is still room on the tree for the altogether more charming old-style candles, apples and straw ornaments.

Christmas Eve, or Julafton, is time for a big dinner, which in many families features julbord, a special Christmas smörgåsbord. It is typically eaten in three courses, the first comprised mainly of fish items, especially pickled herring and cured salmon gravlax. Unique family traditions abound regarding what is eaten or drunk with each, and classic pairings include herring with boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, perhaps with a nip or two of strong akvavit liquor.

The second course is usually a selection of cold sliced meats, the star of which, in most families, is the julskinka or Christmas ham. Emil Lindfors, a student from Turku, describes his family’s version: “Every year we must have the same thing. It’s a big ham, and we stick cloves in it and cover it with mustard before putting it in the oven. It’s very good!” Other choices may include turkey, sausages and processed organ meats, which are deeply evocative of the times when families feasted on the livestock that had been slaughtered at the end of autumn and made into cured products that would keep over the long cold winter.

The third course is when the warm dishes come out of the oven, beginning with bread dunked in the stock from cooking the ham, and continuing with a spread of roast meats and root-vegetable casseroles, including perhaps the famous Janssons frestelse, or “Jansson’s Temptation”, a mouthwatering concoction of sliced potatoes layered with cream, pickled sprats and onion.

For the sweet tooth

Dessert is most often risgryngröt, or rice pudding, made with milk and sugar and sprinkled with cinnamon. A single almond is stirred into the pot, and whoever ends up with it is considered to be lucky.

This lineup of delicacies may seem familiar to many, because Finland-Swedish cuisine has had such a strong influence over Finnish culinary tastes in general – unsurprising, given that the Swedish-speaking community tended to be more well-off and influential, and hence led the way in determining tastes, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

That said, many of the traditional food items are redolent of an era lacking the conveniences of refrigeration or supermarkets. Fresh items are few and far between: the fish tends to be pickled, cured or smoked, as does the meat, and the vegetables on offer are similarly treated or else of the sort that tends to keep well in sacks – cabbage, potatoes, carrots, even rutabagas.

The most celebrated of these preserved items is, of course, lutfisk, which most often makes its appearance on the Christmas or Boxing Day table. For those who have not had the pleasure of acquainting themselves with this famous delicacy, it is made with dried whitefish – usually cod – that has been soaked for days in water and lye. It takes on a gelatinous consistency, and is then boiled and served in a white sauce. It tends to have a rather aggressive perfume, and a tendency to stick irredeemably to crockery and utensils; it permanently ruins silver as well. For these qualities, despite its mild taste when properly prepared, it has been described by renowned food writer Jeffrey Steingarten as “a weapon of mass destruction”.

Replete with dinner, the family settles down while one of its members (father, most likely) dresses up as jultomte, the Christmas gnome. Unlike Santa Claus, he rides a goat, and enters by the front door rather than the chimney. The presents are often handed out accompanied by a funny little rhyme that hints at their contents.

Once the excitement has died down, however, it’s soon time to go to bed, as many families will still wake up for early Christmas morning service. Even those who don’t usually attend will make their way to church, if only for good fellowship and carols. Often it is not so much for religious purposes as it is community and identity, but even so they are made welcome.

Wrapping up

The end of the Christmas season for most Finns is Epiphany, or Loppiainen, which falls on 6 January. But for some of the Swedish-speaking community, that’s not quite enough celebration – so they slap on another week’s worth of festivities, making them last until Knutsdagen, 13 January. That is when friends get together to “plunder” the Christmas tree, stripping it of ornaments and even occasionally tossing it out the window: something that’s perhaps less common in the modern era of apartment blocks!

So while many of the Christmas traditions in Finland are common to everyone, the Swedish-speaking people do have some fascinating and fun practices of their very own – so much so that even members of other communities have taken them to heart.

Kenneth Quek