If you’re planning to spend Christmas in Finland for the first time, you might be in for a surprise. For example, there’s no roast turkey, mince pies or Christmas puddings. No-one pulls a cracker. Nobody is expected to climb down the chimney. There’ll be a Christmas tree, but you won’t find a single present under it and you’ll get funny looks if you start stuffing gifts into giant socks. All the main events and gift-giving happen on Christmas Eve. You’ll discover Finns do Christmas a little differently, but it’s a very special experience.
What does a Finnish Christmas look like? You should expect snow, especially if you’re in central or northern Finland. You might have thought a White Christmas was just for Christmas cards, but there’s usually thick snow on the trees, lakes and the roofs of the pretty wooden houses. People put lanterns on front door steps and lights in the windows. The homes are full of festive decorations with tinsel, twinkly candles and homemade Christmas cards. Many Finns like to have special table cloths, napkins, curtains and cushions that they use just at Christmas time, usually decorated with mildly eccentric patterns of elves, reindeer or snowflakes (and always in red).
The Christmas festivities can only begin after the Declaration of Christmas Peace, which takes place at midday on Christmas Eve, in the city of Turku. It’s televised for the nation and the whole nation duly watches, as somebody reads a speech from an old scroll, instructing everyone to behave themselves for the next few days and keep the noise down (or something like that). The speech is followed by military band music and singing from a choir of stern army veterans in fur hats, all of which is politely applauded by an approving crowd of shivering onlookers. Then it’s time for the national anthem. Hats off, please!
After the Christmas Peace has been declared, Finns are free to get on with their Christmas as they choose. For many, the next step is to sit down for a bowl of hot rice porridge. Crucially, just before the porridge is served, an almond is dropped into the pan. This is a ‘lucky almond’ and whoever finds the almond in their bowl of porridge is said to have good luck for the year to come! The main Christmas Eve meal is generally served much later in the day, so before dinner there’s usually time for a trip to the cemetery.
By late afternoon it will be pitch dark outside and Finns take this opportunity to visit their local cemetery and light a candle. It’s an important tradition to remember departed loved ones during Christmas Eve. Yet for the newcomer, this could sound like an unusual way to spend the holiday and you might be reluctant to tag along. Make an effort to go. You won’t regret it! The cemetery will be full of hundreds of candles shining in the dark. It’s an unforgettable sight and an experience not to be missed. Soak it all up, then hurry back in time for dinner.
The Christmas Eve dinner is served on a candle-lit table with all sorts of hot and cold dishes to try. There is usually roast ham, baked salmon or another roast dish, some baked root vegetable mash (usually swede), cheeses, pickled herring and beetroot salad. Dessert might be a homemade cake, Christmas tarts (pastry with plum jam filling), decorated gingerbread biscuits or some tasty Finnish ice cream. Some Finns like to wear little red elf hats (with bells on) during the meal, or maybe a colourful comedy tie, so you just have to roll with it. Wash down your meal with a few glasses of wine and remember to say “Kippis!” (cheers).
You’ve had your Christmas dinner, but where are your presents? Don’t worry. Santa Claus is on his way, but rather than sneaking down the chimney, in Finland he usually just rings the doorbell. Maybe you booked a visit from a local professional Santa, or maybe Santa’s visit takes place at the same time dad is out on some errand (wink, wink). Either way, Santa will be dressed all in red with a long white beard and will do his best not to let his false nose and glasses fall off as he gives out the presents. If you’re out and about on Christmas Eve, don’t be surprised to see a Santa or two hurrying to their next appointment.
So, you’ve watched the peace declaration, almost choked on your lucky almond, met a skinny-looking Santa and eaten till you’re fit to burst. Have you done Christmas yet? No, because now it’s time for a Christmas sauna! No trip to Finland is complete without some sauna time and many Finns like to indulge their sauna habit on this special day. So, at the end of your first Finnish Christmas, why not sit back in the sauna, make some steam and relax. You’ve earned it!
Now for a bit of useful info. If you’re travelling to Finland at Christmas, note that the majority of supermarkets will be closed from afternoon onwards on 24th December and all day on 25th December. Don’t worry about driving in the snow. The Finns have thousands of snow ploughs at their disposal and they make sure that all the roads are clear. Also, all hire cars will be fitted with winter tyres. This means that if you want to hire an economy two-door hatchback for your Christmas cottage holiday, it shouldn’t be a problem.