1. Santa Claus gets taken to the extreme
Finland is pretty much home to Santa Claus, who is from the northern region of Finland, Korvatunturi (The Ear Mountain), in Lapland. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Santas can be found in almost every shopping center, supermarket, and department store, including Kamppi in Helsinki, and Stockmanns. We’re used to seeing Santa greet travelers at airports or train stations, especially in Lapland, and we can even send our wish list to Santa in the post. Every single letter, of which the Finnish Santa receives some hundreds of thousands from kids and adults from around the world, gets answered from the “Santa Claus Main Post Office” in Rovaniemi. And if Christmas isn’t enough for us, we can meet Santa Claus every day of the year right by the Arctic Circle at Finland’s Santa Claus Village.
2. Ads for “Sober Santa with a Car” circulate through communities
Finnish guys who have a car and don’t drink alcohol can pick up a part-time job as a “Sober Santa.” This position came about because it used to be customary to give a hired Santa a drink at each household. Needless to say, they were “more than merry” by the early evening, and began causing problems. Ads for Sober Santas adorn Finnish shop notice boards and Internet forums starting from early autumn as families get ready to celebrate Christmas. On Christmas Eve, these Santas go from home to home delivering presents to children, and the money is pretty decent for only a few hours of work — the going rate for a fifteen-minute visit is around 80 Euros (100 USD).
3. Everyone suddenly attends church
Starting from the first day of Advent until the Epiphany, individual parishes organize “The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs” events, which gather around a million Finns every year. That’s almost one fifth of the whole population, amazing considering that a majority of Finns don’t actively participate in events held by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland other times of the year. Churches and parish halls fill up and we sing our favorite Christmas songs, and often the older, more traditional locations organize several events that are booked up on a first-come-first-serve basis.
4. Breakfast begins with a search for almonds in the porridge
Christmas Eve is where it’s at when it comes to holiday celebrations in Finland, and the excitement starts with breakfast. Warm rice porridge served with sugar, cinnamon and sometimes also butter and milk, is the most popular way to start the day. One lucky person in the family will find an almond in their portion. The almond is said to bring luck to whoever finds it, but in medieval times whoever found a coin or bean in their porridge got to decide who was to perform entertaining tasks for the amusement of the rest of the party.
5. Declaring the Peace becomes a televised event
The holidays really begin when over 15,000 Finns gather at the square in Turku (Finland’s former capital) at 12 o’clock on Christmas Eve. Then the Declaration of Christmas Peace is delivered both in Finnish and Swedish, and is broadcast to over a million people on television and the internet. Most businesses close their doors, and families gather together to pause for a moment of peace before the celebration. This unique tradition has been going since the Middle Ages, with the wording dating to the 1640s. The current format of the event, where the declaration is preceded by a hymn, the Finnish national anthem, and an honorary march, was established in the early 1900s.
6. Sauna visits occur before Santa visits
Although the days when babies were delivered in saunas is gone, the Christmas sauna is a tradition that still goes strong. Almost every Finnish household has a sauna, even apartments, and it’s usually visited on Christmas Eve before dinner. It’s a way to cleanse, relax, and reflect before the celebration. In the past it was believed that elves, gnomes, and spirits of dead family members bathed in the sauna after the family, and throwing beer on the stove was said to ensure a good harvest for the following year. For an unlucky child, Santa Claus sneakily pays a visit while the family is in the sauna, leaving all the presents under the Christmas tree. But really it means that the parents didn’t want to, or couldn’t find a Santa to visit in the evening.
7. Pinterest becomes a go-to for new casserole recipes
During Christmas dinner, we indulge in a series of slightly different, brown-colored casseroles that accompany an oven-cooked ham. Potatoes, swedes (turnips), and carrots mashed into the respective casserole dishes are served, along with with sides of fish, and salads made of salted mushrooms and beetroot. We call this the joulupöytä, the traditional assortment of dishes at Christmas dinner. For dessert, joulutorttu (sweet prune jam pastries), gingerbread cookies, and lots of chocolate truffles are served, and our casserole leftovers usually carry well through Christmas and Boxing Day.
8. Sitting in traffic at the cemetery is expected
At Christmas, the Finnish cemeteries become bright with thousands of candles lighting up the dark winter’s day. The custom of visiting graves of loved ones on Christmas Eve has resulted in the increased use of traffic wardens. They are hired to ensure we experience a smooth visitation and avoid getting into fights about parking over the grave of someone’s granny.
9. People open their homes (and our saunas) to those in need
Recently, Finns have started to offer a place at their Christmas table, or on their sauna benches, to families in need. The stereotypical Finn is stoic and cold, only minding his or her own business, but at Christmas it’s possible to see Finnish mothers on community Facebook groups offering support those not as fortunate. We find both practical and nonmaterial ways to help out. Although so far only a few families have shared this experience, the updates I’ve seen on Facebook have been appreciatively showcased and commented on by thousands.