Christmas and Independence Day... Yes you read correctly, surprising as it may seem at first, the two celebrations are closely linked in Finland. Curious to discover what December in the north of Europe can be like, we asked Anette to tell us more. Mother of two, she and her family live in Helsinki.
My girls this Fall 2020
Can you describe what December feels like in your country?
December is my favourite month of the year. Even if it is very rare to have a white Christmas nowadays, it’s still a very magical month. We don’t celebrate Halloween or Thanksgiving as much here, but Independence Day and Christmas? Yes yes yes!
There are Christmas lights all over the city to cheer up the darkness, night falls at 4pm here so they are much appreciated! Shops are full of Christmas goodies and we have a ”Christmas radio” which plays carols only from November to Epiphany. You can see Christmas foods and treats, beautiful decorations and trees everywhere you go and it’s that time of the year when it's alright to buy silly curtains or tablecloths with elves or reindeers prints.
Christmas time 2019. Picture taken at 5 pm! You can see how dark it is already. Luckily we have those Christmas lights!
How do you celebrate Christmas and what is your festive meal like?
We celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, on the 24th, and that’s when Santa pops by with presents or leaves them behind the door. For lunch, we eat traditional Finnish Christmas foods like potato, carrot and rutabaga casseroles and Christmas ham (although it’s becoming more and more common to have a turkey or a goose on the table instead). We have rice porridge with cinnamon and sugar for dessert. That's the classic meal but traditions are changing all the time and vegan options are also growing every year. Which is nice, since I’m all in for everyone to build their own traditions with their families and loved ones.
During the festive season we also enjoy "joulutorttu". They are Finnish jam tarts made of puff pastry dough and plum marmalade. The plum jam one is the most traditional, but it’s just as good with apple-cinnamon jam or whatever floats your boat. New trend has been to put marmalade candy in the middle and let it melt into the pastry. There are also many ways you can shape the pastries but the star is the most used. The quick and easy way to do it is to use ready made frozen puff pastry dough and jam. Once baked, just dust it with powdered sugar. If you wish to have it fully home made here is a good recipe.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE TRADITIONS OF INDEPENDENCE DAY IN FINLAND?
The Independence day of Finland is December 6th. It’s nothing like America's 4th of July, but more like Remembrance day in Great Britain. It’s a national public holiday and a flag day. (In a nutshell Finland was ruled by Sweden and then Russia, it achieved its independence in 1917).
We remember those who gave their lives for us, the hundred of men and women who fought for what we have today and the freedom we too often consider as an evidence. It’s a very melancholic day but it’s a key part of Finns' December and linked to several traditions.
The most known tradition is the Independence Day Ball, which is hosted by the president and his wife at their palace. Politicians, diplomats, war veterans and celebrities or athletes who have done something significant during the year are invited. The Ball is streamed via national television and is one of the most watched TV-programs of the year, every year.
Although it’s mostly just people shaking the Presidential couple's hands, it’s always been a silly and fun tradition in our family. We gather together, we eat something good and we go ”ooh” and ”ah” at the amazing outfits since there are no other galas or such here. It’s like our Met-gala... We love to sit down and watch the women in beautiful ball dresses and handsome men in their tailcoats, eagerly waiting for the turn of our favourite singer or actress to appear on the screen!
Last year, we watched the ball with even greater excitement and pride. A Finnish member of Parliament wore a dress designed and made by my friend! The ball is a great opportunity for young local designers to show their skills, since many politicians or celebrities want to support Finnish design.
It can be quite harsh however, since magazines always do some kind of rating of the dresses seen in the castle and who wore what and who broke the etiquette etc. Yet the first ones to enter the castle are always the war veterans, so it’s a time to really give thanks for all those who have fought so hard for everything we have now, a way of respecting and honoring our country.
There are several other traditions on Independence Day : we visit the graves of our grand- and great-grandparents, there are also several army parades and church services and the Finnish movie called "The Unknown Soldier" is broadcasted yearly.
There’s also a very old tradition of putting two candles at the window at 6pm. The legend goes that the candles were a way to inform the Finnish soldiers that a house was safe and ready to offer a hiding place during the war. It’s been said that one candle symbolizes home and the other one the country.
So yes, it’s a bit sad but also a very respectful and peaceful day here. It’s a day to stop the Christmas hassle and to think how different things could have been. After Independence day, the waiting of Christmas continues as normal, but it’s a part of our winter traditions to take a break and celebrate our country in the middle of twinkle lights and gingerbread cookies.
Independence Day 2017, when Finland celebrated its 100th birthday. And there was snow! It was one of the only days in Helsinki that December when we had snow.
What will be December be like this year?
Let’s see how the Christmas and Independence day celebrations go this year, the Ball has been cancelled and other traditions like Christmas markets are not happening due the Covid situation. But I think Christmas is mainly celebrated with the right mindset - it’s surely been a very different year for all of us, so I’m all in to celebrate Christmas time the whole December. I even put up my tree on November because I felt like we needed light in the middle of the tighter restrictions and cancelled events. Like Albus Dumbledore said - "Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light".
Sneak peek of my tree this year. The mantel is quite not ready, so don’t mind it.