A Month of Christmas: The Finnish Joulu

Finland - Scott #1479 (2014)
Finland – Scott #1479 (2014)

Jul or jol is the term used for the Christmas holiday season in most of Scandinavia and parts of Scotland. Originally, “jul” was the name of a month in the old Germanic calendar. The concept of “jul” as a period of time rather than a specific event prevailed in Scandinavia; in modern times, Jul is a period of time stretching from mid-November to mid-January, with Christmas and the week up to New Year as its highlight. The modern English yule and yuletide derive from this term.

The term “Jul” is common throughout Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, Denmark, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. In Finland, the term is “Joulu“. Santa Claus is “Joulupukki”.

 In the Finnish tradition, the Christmas period has usually been considered to start on Tuomas’s nameday on December 21 and to continue until St. Knut’s Day on January 13. This is reflected in several rhymes and jingles, such as Hyvä Tuomas joulun tuopi, paha Nuutti pois sen viepi (“Good Tuomas the bringer, bad Nuutti the taker of Christmas”). Prior to 1774, Finland also celebrated a third Christmas Day, the day of apostle John the Evangelist on December 27, and a fourth Christmas Day, Massacre of the Innocents on December 28. However, King Gustav III of Sweden cut them down to two, because the nobility and bourgeoisie believed that long holidays made the workers too lazy. The third and fourth Christmas Day have also been called little holidays or midweek holidays. The Finnish Orthodox Church spends Christmas at the same time as the Western Christianity.

Christmas tree decorated with Christmas lights outside the Oulu town hall. Photo taken on December 6, 2012.
Christmas tree decorated with Christmas lights outside the Oulu town hall. Photo taken on December 6, 2012.

The Finnish Christmas has acquired some characteristics from the harvest festival kekri, that used to take place around the old All Saints’ Day. In Sweden and Finland, joulupukki (Christmas goat) was a man who dressed as a fertility rite character, a goat. He put goat horns on his head as in shamanistic tradition to look like a goat. The outfit also included a mask made of birch bark and a sheepskin coat worn inside-out.

Feeding small birds at Christmas is an old tradition and the peasant culture’s ritual that brought good luck to farming. The purpose of the barley or oat sheaf was to keep the birds away from the crop in the summer. The Finnish pagans may have believed that the dead, i.e. soul birds, celebrated the mid-winter holiday with the living. They may have also believed birds to bring good luck to the home.[10] In Sweden, the church was against this tradition, and it was about the dispapper in Finland too, until some newspapers and charitable organizations revived it.

Some traditional Christmas decorations are himmeli (a hanging decoration made of straw) and Yule Goat. Decorations made of straw have their source in kekri, the harvest festival. The first Christmas trees came to Finland in the middle of the 1800s.

Attending church early on the morning of Christmas Day is part of the Protestant tradition. The Christmas gospel is heard and Luther’s hymn 21 Enkeli taivaan (Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her) is sung. Previously the Lutheran church was very strict about attending the Christmas church. If you did not attend, you were reprimanded publicly in the annual catechetical meeting. Reading the Christmas gospel before the meal became common at the end of the 1800s as a consequence of the Christian revival.

Christmas dinner as in the archipelago, at Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, Turku. Photo taken on December 26, 2009.
Christmas dinner as in the archipelago, at Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, Turku. Photo taken on December 26, 2009.

Having a sauna at Christmas is an old tradition. People washed in the Christmas sauna before the festivities, and food and drink gifts were left there for the elf. People in wealthy families started giving each other presents at the beginning of the 1800s. Christmas calendars arrived in Finland after World War II.

The tradition to visit cemeteries to light candles on family graves was started in the 1900s. It became a common practice at the graves of fallen soldiers after the Winter War and soon at other graves too. The Kekri tradition of leaving presents for the dead was moved to Christmas. Nowadays candles may be lighted as a common experience to honor the dead.

Eating abundantly at the Christmas meal comes from the ancient Finns and relates to the agricultural year cycle and the festival of light celebrated around the winter solstice. At a time when food was grown at home, gluttony and eating meat at Christmas was rare luxury. Lutefisk and porrige are some of the oldest Christmas foods. Barley was replaced by rice in the 1800s. Casseroles, prune soup and gingerbread biscuits were adopted from the upper classes in the 1800s and 1900s. The Christmas ham replaced the kekri lamb, and in the 1940s it was challenged by the wild turkey.

Santa Claus waiting for a train at the Malmi railway station in Helsinki, Finland. Photo taken on November 27, 2008.
Santa Claus waiting for a train at the Malmi railway station in Helsinki, Finland. Photo taken on November 27, 2008.

Christmas has traditionally been a family celebration, but in the 2000s it became common to spend Christmas alone.

The usual Christmas decorations are spruce twigs, a Christmas tree, Christmas wreaths, straw goats, himmelis, apples, candles, Christmas tablecloths, Christmas flowers, outdoor torches, ice lanterns and sheaves. To preserve nature, some people choose a tree in the garden or nearby forest to decorate for the birds, instead of buying a Christmas tree. The tree is decorated with fat balls. Before giving out the presents, some may light candles for the dead.

The Finnish Yule table (Joulupöytä) normally features different casseroles made usually of carrot, swede (lanttulaatikko) or potato (sweetened potato casserole) and various fish, such as cold smoked salmon, gravlax and Coregonus lavaretus (graavisiika). The main dish is usually a large Christmas ham, which is eaten with mustard or bread along with the other dishes. Fish is also served (often lutefisk and gravlax), and the ham is served with laatikkos, casseroles made with swede, potato and carrot, occasionally liver. The traditional Christmas beverage is either alcoholic or non-alcoholic mulled wine (glögi in Finnish). On Christmas Eve people usually eat rice porridge.

Typical Christmas flowers include poinsettia, hyacinth, tulips, and Christmas roses. Sending Christmas cards, or joulukortti, to friends and family is also a long-held tradition. In fact, over 50 million Christmas cards are sent in Finland each year. Many people across the world believe that the real Santa Claus lives in Korvatunturi, a fell in Finnish Lapland. Every year, he receives over 700,000 letters from all over the world, but most come from the UK, Poland, Italy, Finland and France.

Finland - Scott #1479 (2014) with blue cancellation from Kuopio, the cultural center of Eastern Finland
Finland – Scott #1479 (2014) with blue cancellation from Kuopio, the cultural center of Eastern Finland
Finland - Scott #1479-1480 (2014) first day cover
Finland – Scott #1479-1480 (2014) first day cover

The first Finnish Christmas stamp was released on November 15, 1973, a single 0.30-markka stamp portraying Santa being pulled in his sleigh by a single reindeer (Scott #539). Two Christmas stamps were released at the Helsinki Book Fair on October 23, 2014 (Scott #1479-1480). These were designed by Kristina Segercrantz, famous for several award-winning book illustrations. With these stamps executed with watercolor technique, Segercrantz wanted to create a true Christmas fairy-tale atmosphere. The stamps were printed using offset lithography by Joh. Enschedé Stamps, the Netherlands and perforated 13¾. There were 38,000,000 copies printed of the 0.750-euro denomination which depicts an elf girl and a reindeer lit by candlelight. The non-denominated 1st class stamp features an elf ringing a Christmas bell, feet off the ground with a total of 5,000,000 copies of the self-adhesive stamp printed. The graphic design of these Christmas stamps comes from Olavi Hankimo.

Finland - Santa Claus (2014)
Finland – Santa Claus (2014)

Additionally, Finland released a special Santa Claus stamp on November 17, 2014, in the very low quantity of 120,000 copies. According to a Posti press release,

The Joulun taika (The Magic of Christmas) stamp is based on Antti Kurola’s impressive photograph. In the magical picture, Santa Claus is throwing snow into the air with both hands, and behind the snow-covered spruce tree forest is revealed the city of Rovaniemi. The Santa Claus stamp is a great way to show to the rest of the world where the real Father Christmas is from.

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