There’s something magical about a Nordic Christmas. I would say that, wouldn’t I? But it’s true. With fresh snow underfoot and dark skies clear with stars, this time of year has an almost mythical quality to it. For us Scandinavians, December is the most important time of year. As well as Christmas, there are other important dates in this, the darkest of months. Finland gained its independence from Russia on 6th of the month and on 13th Swedes (and some Finns) celebrate Santa Lucia.
Santa Lucia is a festival of light which commemorates Saint Lucia of Syracuse. All over Sweden (and Finland), there are church services and processions. Lucia wears candles in her hair while others, clad in white gowns, move slowly behind her singing traditional songs. You don’t have to be religious (which I’m not) to take part; most schools put up an event for children and parents. Being chosen as Lucia is a dream come true for many a girl. (I was never Lucia, boo-hoo!)
I love this festival and have on a couple of occasions been invited to St Paul’s Cathedral here in London to celebrate the day. Today I will be going to a Lucia carol service at the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, which I’m really looking forward to!
A Finnish Christmas
When I was growing up in Tampere, a town in central Finland, there was always snow on the ground in December. The Christmas lights of the Tammer rapids in the centre of town were a sight to behold. Our Christmas Eve visit to the church through the snowy, torch-lit path was enchanting. We were told elves kept an eye out for us children to make sure we were good. Walking along the dark, narrow pathway, I kept a keen eye for any red-hatted small creatures. After church, it was time to light the (real) candles on our tree and enjoy the Christmas Eve delights that my mother had spent days preparing.
Only after the meal did we get our presents. My father used to dress up as Father Christmas, carrying a huge sack filled with parcels over his shoulder. He wore his sheepskin coat inside out, a false beard and a red hat. He fooled me for years with his disguise. I could never understand why he needed to go and check on his car just as we were waiting for Father Christmas to arrive.
Below is a black and white picture of me with my sister, just before the arrival of Santa, judging by our excited smiles. I just adore this picture, especially the way my Big Sis is holding my hand and I have my (signature) lopsided smile on my face.
Finnish/Swedish Christmas Mashup
When, in the early 1970s, my family and I moved from Finland to the metropole that is Stockholm, we still celebrated Christmas with Finnish foods, although our father stopped dressing up as Father Christmas. We adopted some Swedish traditions such as observing the Santa Lucia Day and adding Lussebullar, Jansson’s Temptation, meatballs and Gravad Lax to our holiday menu.
On our return to Finland four years later, our Nordic Christmas, a mixture of Finnish and Swedish traditions, was firmly set into our family celebrations.
Nordic Navy Christmas
When I moved to Britain, I was determined not to give up on my own culture. On my first year here, I organised a Nordic Christmas Eve for the Royal Navy. Because my new husband was a junior officer onboard his new submarine, he was deemed suitable to be on duty over Christmas. Encouraged by him, I decided to bring a little seasonal Nordic cheer to the ship’s company. On Christmas Eve, I filled two tea urns with Glögg (Swedish mulled wine) and together with the hot, boozy drink, offered my home-baked gingerbread biscuits and Finnish Christmas Stars (puff pastry tarts with plum jam) to the twenty or so submariners in the wardroom at HMS Drake in Plymouth.
We even had a pared-down version of the Finnish/Swedish Christmas dinner together with the other duty officer and his wife in the mess afterwards. It was lovely to spend the evening with my Englishman, although it was sad to leave him to sleep in the wardroom while we wives drove home to our individual married quarters. Being a naval wife was a lonely life most of the time, and even though I knew Id’ see my husband on Boxing Day, I didn’t relish waking up alone on the first Christmas morning in a new country.
Traditions Are Important
Once we’d set the precedence, after that first Christmas together (or not), we followed the new tradition of having two Christmases: a Nordic one on Christmas Eve, and a British one on Christmas Day. When the children came along, passing on my own Christmas traditions became even more important. I hope that growing up with my native (and adopted) traditions gave them a sense of identity; a knowledge that they have Finnish blood running in their veins.
Now, of course, we have another addition to the family. Even though our little granddaughter is only one-quarter Finnish, I still feel that it’s important for her to know where (some of) her roots lie, so the Nordic Christmas tradition carries on.
I love having my own traditions and encourage the (now grown-up) children to carry them on. However, over the years, the children have heard me say more than once that it’s time to drop ONE Christmas from our family celebrations. This happens every year now. Around the end of November, or early December, I begin the conversation with,
‘What if we went out to the pub on the 24th instead of having the usual Finnish Christmas Eve?’
The Englishman and the children exchange glances.
‘Don’t be fooled,’ says the Englishman. ‘She’s just testing us.’
‘Don’t worry, mum,’ says son, ‘We love our Finnish Christmas Eve.’
‘But there’s so much to do, to cook …’ I say but daughter interrupts, ‘We’ll help, we always do!’
And so it goes on, every year. Of course, I’m delighted that the traditions I’ve spent so many years trying to keep alive are now firmly set in our annual celebrations. It now seems the children – and the Englishman – find it difficult to live without them!
Do you have international Christmas traditions that you just have to celebrate?