The preparation for Christmas, the greatest holiday of the year, starts four weeks before Christmas in the darkest time of the year. On the first Advent, Hosanna has echoed through Finnish churches for over a century.
Lighting the advent candles is part of the tradition. On the first Advent, only one of the four candles is lit, on the second two, on the third three, and finally, on the last and fourth Advent, all four candles of different length are lit. This symbolises the light of Christ that becomes brighter as Christmas grows nearer. The first candle is lit for expectation, the second for Christmas joy, the third for Christmas peace and the fourth for love.
Christmas streets with colourful lights are opened in many cities on the first Advent. Orchestras play and speeches are given at the opening ceremony. A Christmas tree is raised in a prominent place to bring joy to the entire community, and the plentiful Christmas lights add to the merriment which many families gather to admire.
The Aleksanterinkatu Street in Helsinki city centre has been Finland’s official Christmas Street since 1947. It is opened every year on the eve of the first Advent, accompanied by festive speeches and orchestral music.
Christmas decorations are put up early, because everybody wants to share in the enjoyment of Advent and the Christmas season to the maximum. Christmas curtains and table cloths are brought into use, yards are illuminated with Christmas lights, doors decorated with Christmas wreaths, advent stars and electric candelabra are installed in windows.
Nowadays the decorations used at Christmas are often a combination of old and new. Straw ornaments are commonplace and represent the old tradition. The beautiful straw mobile called himmeli is a Finnish masterpiece handicraft hung from many a living room ceiling. Straw goats and various decorative bands, stars, angels and gnomes are hung from the Christmas tree. Doors and candles are decorated with wreaths bound with juniper and cowberry twigs which are evergreen plants commonly used in Finnish Christmas decorations.
The old-fashioned straw ornaments mix happily with the traditional silver- and gold-coloured, red and green Christmas decorations. Typical decorative motifs are Christmas angels, gnomes and birds. Candle and flower arrangements are an essential part of Christmas decorations.
The Finns love the bright red Christmas flowers, fragrant hyacinths and red tulips. Various arrangements and flower baskets make good gifts and souvenirs at Christmas time.
Mistletoe which is included in the Christmas tradition in many countries is in Finland mainly used for decoration at pre-Christmas parties. The Finnish equivalent for mistletoe is the cowberry twig which is a plant growing wild in the forest.
Christmas and light are interrelated in many ways. Christmas lights originate from the religious message and represent the light of Christ that God sent to the world with the birth of Baby Jesus. In Finland, Christmas is the darkest season of the year which makes additional lighting particularly welcome. The Finns equip their yards with electric Christmas lights and lanterns of snow and ice. However, the most beloved Christmas light of all is candle light.
St Lucia’s Day
St Lucia is a famous saint celebrated in many countries, including Italy and the Northern countries. St Lucia suffered a martyr’s death in Sicily on 13 December 304. There are many legends related to St Lucia. According to one of them, a Roman fellow fell in love with Lucia’s beautiful eyes and wanted to have her for himself, but Lucia turned him down. She ripped out her eyes and gave them to the man. This is when a miracle took place and Lucia got new, even more beautiful, eyes.
When the man still could not have Lucia for himself, he killed her with his sword. From then on St Lucia has been the patron saint of the blind and those with eye illnesses. The traditions of St Lucia’s Day were passed to Finland from Sweden and it is today celebrated every year on the 13 December by electing St Lucia. This is when the gorgeous St Lucia descends the stairs of the Helsinki Dome with flowers in her hands and a candle crown on her head. St Lucia and her procession participate at various occasions from which the proceeds are donated to charity.
Pre-Christmas party season
The period starting with advent and ending at Christmas is a common carnival season in Finland. This is when people from workplaces and associations, friends and hobby circles get together to celebrate the so-called little Christmas, or ‘pikkujoulu’ in Finnish. The celebration involves communal singing, dancing, playful games, and, as the grand finale, Santa’s visit with small gifts being handed out to all. After the boisterous merrymaking of the carnival season people get gradually into a more peaceful mood and quiet down towards Christmas.
The celebration of little Christmas originates from the tradition to celebrate Christmas at schools which was originally adopted by student associations in the 1920s to mark the closing of the autumn term.
Finnish sayings related to Christmas
As was the case with all anniversaries in the old days, the advancement of the Christmas season was also marked by name days. Many of the old sayings still hold true today (translated from Finnish):
“Antti starts Christmas; Thomas brings people into the house.”
“Good Thomas brings Christmas in, bad Knut takes it away.”
“On Anna’s day the beer is brewed, at Christmas enjoyed.”
According to these sayings the Christmas season can be divided into four phases: the advent, the preparation, the actual celebration, and the closing of the Christmas season.
Finnish Independence Day
In Finland, an important national holiday is celebrated shortly before Christmas. This is the Finnish Independence Day of 6 December. On this day it is customary to light two candles on the window sill in Finnish homes and offices. The day coincides with St Nicholas’ Day which is spent in memory of Santa’s ancestor – another good reason to celebrate!
The Star boys’ singing procession
The Star boys’ singing procession actually used to be performed on Boxing Day, but in Finland it is commonly included in the programme of various pre-Christmas occasions. Originally schoolboys dressed as the Star boys used to go from door to door singing and asking for food or money for their studies. Nowadays money can be collected, above all, for charity purposes.
The Star boys’ singing procession is most popular in Oulu area in northern Finland. It tells the story of the birth of Baby Jesus and the murdering of baby boys by King Herod, the King of the Moors; other characters included in the procession are the Knight and the Star Twirler known in Finnish as Mänkki. In the old days, young boys who wanted to perform in the Star boys singing procession were first required to pass a song test arranged by the police.