A friend of mine said that she would love to read a blog about a Finnish Christmas. It’s something that I tend to take forgranted having been enjoying them as long as I can remember, so I was glad for the prompt to pay attention and reflect this Christmas. My mother is Finnish, so even when she lived in the UK, we used to enjoy many of the trappings. She used to make two gingerbread houses, one for us to have at home, and one for me to take to school. We would have decorations made from straw on our Christmas tree. And most Christmas times we would go to Finland for the holidays to visit my grandparents. Santa Claus would come and knock on the door on Christmas Eve and bring a sackful of presents for us to open.
Nowadays, Santa doesn’t come to the house. But we still go to the churchyard in the afternoon on Christmas Eve as is the tradition, and place candles at the graves of relatives – my grandparents, my great-grandparents, my uncle’s parents, other relatives. There is also a place to leave candles to remember the departed who are not buried there. Usually, snow has to be dug out from around the gravestones to place the candles there. This year there was no snow though. Only a full moon to light the way. After coming back, we typically have a glass of ‘gloggi’ which can either have alcohol in a mulled-wine style or simply be spiced warm juice.
Our own Christmas tradition is that my Mum cooks a more English-style Christmas meal (albeit with a lentil roast) on Christmas Eve, which we have before opening presents, and then on Christmas Day we go to my aunt’s house, where she makes the traditional Christmas Eve feast. The main meat is typically ham, but since half of us are pescatarians, my aunt makes salmon baked in a blue cheese sauce. This is accompanied by the bakes – ‘lanttulaatiko’ and ‘porkannalaatiko’ – Swede and carrot bakes respectively. The Swede bake is particularly delicious – mashed up swede sweetened with sugar and spices (the recipe that I’ve linked to uses turnips but we have always used swedes). The carrot bake has rice in it. There are then a selection of vegetables and salads – not roast vegetables in the English tradition however.
Breads are an important part of any Finnish meal, and Christmas is no exception – on the table you might find dark rye bread (particularly good with salmon), rieska, which is a barley bread, and joululimpuu, or Christmas bread which is slightly sweet and spiced. Karjalanpiiraka are one of my favourites. The name is literally translated as Karelian pies, and consists of rice porridge baked in a rye pastry crust. It sounds strange, but I think they are delicious, and are particularly good warm with egg butter (butter mixed up with chopped boiled egg).
The rice theme continues for pudding – with rice porridge and ‘kiisseli’, which is a stew of dried fruits, served with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top. An almond is hidden in the rice porridge and whoever gets the almond is the lucky one for the year ahead. This year I got the almond – lucky me! I had always thought that rice had long been a staple part of the Finnish Christmas, but from the discussion at the table this year I learnt that rice only arrived the Second World War, as part of the Marshall Aid from the States. Before that, barley had been used in place of rice.
Being now completely stuffed, we take a break for a couple of hours, before going back for coffee and cakes. ‘Joulutorttu’, the Finnish equivalent of mince pies, are made from puff pastry with prune filling in the middle. Then of course there is gingerbread and ‘pulla’, which is a white sweet bread, best made into cinnamon buns.
Food is clearly central to the Finnish Christmas, but I also love the use of candles and light. To counteract the darkness, homes have an abundance of candles and lights of different varieties, and these add to the festive atmosphere.
So if you’re looking to ring the changes next Christmas, you could always try adding one or two touches of Finland to your own festive table – or maybe, if you ask Santa Claus nicely, you’ll get to jump on a plane and go experience it for yourself.
Hyvaa joulua! (Happy Christmas!)