Christmas 1939

Written by Jaana Jokinen, told by my father Matti Samuli

30th November 1939

“All aboard!” The conductor’s booming cry drew my mum to her feet. “The train is leaving, let’s go!” I clapped my hands enthusiastically.  I could hardly contain my excitement.  Even though I was barely four years old, I had travelled quite a bit, but nothing thrilled me more than a train trip to the capital city. “If we don’t get on board quick, that train is going to leave without us mum”. “Hold your horses Samuli-darling! We will make it. They will not leave without us”, mum reassured me with a warm smile. My mum smoothed down her figure-hugging dark-green, cotton day dress and picked up her well-worn suitcase. I was already pulling her by her other hand towards the train, trying to avoid running into the other passengers. I heard the whistle and another “All aboard!” as I climbed the steep steps of the train. “Can we sit here mum?” I asked rather loudly, pointing toward a vacant wooden bench and attracted the attention of fellow travellers, who seemed to all be in happy moods. My mum let me sit by the window, but I had to sit on my legs to see out of it. “Tickets, please!” the grey-haired gentleman yelled, extending out his hand to the travellers.  Mum put her suitcase away, took her hat off and placed it in the hat-rack above us, then sat down next to me and fumbled in her handbag. She retrieved the tickets and handed them to the conductor. I studied the uniformed man with big round eyes and wished that when I grow up, I could be a train conductor. Mum drew me into her soft embrace as I rested my head against her. She made me feel so loved, safe and secure.

Smoke and cinders belched from the diamond-shaped stack on top of the mighty engine. The commanding screech of the whistle blew three quick blasts, and the train began to rock from side to side. The swaying motion was almost gentle and lulling at first, but as the train picked up speed, I could hear the familiar clickety-clack, slap-slap-slap of the wheels. Soon our car began to bounce like a rolling ship at sea.

Two men dressed in dark suits sat in the seat directly across from us. Soon I became aware of the intensity of one of these men watching us. “Is this young man truly yours? Surely you are not old enough to have a son!?” he asked my mum. I was aware that my mum was young and beautiful and often received male interest, yet she always seemed to shy away from the attention. This time was no different. “I am travelling to Helsinki with my son to meet my husband there” was my mum’s short but polite answer to him. After that he left us alone.

After a while of looking at the countryside and feeling the train’s rocking lullaby, my eyes began to feel so heavy, and my mind was caught in a carousel of thoughts. I was looking forward to seeing my dad in Helsinki. He always took such good care of me and my mum. Before he left, he explained to me that he had been called to a Military Refresher. I am not quite sure what that meant, except that my dad got to wear an army uniform and I was so proud to be his son. Mum told me we were travelling to Helsinki to catch up with dad during his short break. “Would you like me to lift your son up onto the hat-rack, where he could have a sleep? He might be more comfortable there”, asked one of the men opposite us and stirred me from my deep thoughts. “If you would be so kind”, my mum answered him. I felt two strong arms lift me and place me next to my mum’s hat on the rack above us. As I stretched out my body, finally the carousel in my mind came to a stop, after every idea, notion and event from my day had replayed and I couldn’t fight sleep anymore.


“I’m quite certain you will find these rooms to be to your liking, Mrs Vainikka”, a young bellman declared as he ushered us to our Young Men’s Christian Association Hotel room number 407 on the 4th floor, in the centre of Helsinki. I glanced around the large sitting area. The wood floors had been polished to perfection. I was curious to look out the window. I rose on my tippy toes holding onto the windowsill as I poked my head glancing out. The big city looked so different to the little country towns I was used to living in. In the corner of the room, I saw a large double bed. I couldn’t hold back my excitement but run and jumped on to the bed. It felt so soft and comfortable, much better than sleeping in the hat-rack of the train. My mum sat beside me, patted my head, telling me to rest a little, while she gets refreshed. I tried to keep my eyes open, but they just felt so heavy. The last thought I had just before I fell asleep was how much I looked forward to going for a walk out in the big city and seeing my dad again.


I woke up to the sounds of loud sirens. I felt confused. At first, I found it difficult to even remember where I was. I could hear a war plane circling around above, then a loud howling of a bomb being dropped and the huge explosion as it hit some target close-by, shaking the whole big building we were in. “Mum, where are you mum?!” I called out, but I had hardly finished calling her when I felt my mum’s arms scooping me up into her lap as she ran out the hotel room door. We saw lots of people hurrying down the stairs, some panicking and pushing others out of the way. My mum, ever so peacefully and calmly, put me down, as we took our turn descending the concrete steps. She firmly held my hand every time there was a new loud scary explosion. When we got to the ground floor, there were men with white bands in their arms ushering us further down still into the bomb shelter. We were all told to sit on make-shift plank benches that were put in there. I sat on my mum’s lap and listened to the people speak to each other. An elderly gentleman was shaking his head saying how he couldn’t believe they would bomb civilians when a war had not even been declared. I asked my mum, who was bombing us, but the woman next to us answered and said ‘The Big Neighbour in the East’ is doing this. The planes kept circling the city, dropping destructive bombs again and again, leaving devastation and death in its wake. Finally, I could hear silence. The bombing had stopped. The silence was soon followed by the sounds of emergency vehicles. We were told to stay where we were until we could hear the sound of the unbroken siren, which would mean the danger had passed.

Now that the frightening sounds had ended, I wasn’t scared anymore. I climbed out of my mum’s lap, standing in the middle of the crowd. I was studying them and the way they were seated. To me it looked like they were all on a train. I thought it would be fun to play the role of a train conductor, so I started asking them for their train tickets. A slight smile formed on the lips of a few of them. An elderly lady even opened her handbag on her lap, I assumed to take her train ticket out, but to my delight she offered me a lolly. I gave my mum a brief hurried look. Mum nodded her head which reminded me of the good manners needed here. To thank the lady, I bowed my head and clicked my shoes together.


The next morning our hotel was evacuated. I was only four years old, but I understood that war had broken out. With big round eyes I studied the destruction that was all around us. My mum and I were ushered to a close-by large school. It was full of evacuated city people all waiting to be told what next. We stood in one queue after another and had to give our details again and again. Since it now was the 1st of December, dusk arrived early, days were short, and nights were long. Darkness quickly descended on the city. Maybe it was better that way, at least then we couldn’t see the shattered buildings that seemed to make everyone unsettled. Once again, we were told to sit on some make-ship plank benches. I felt immense hunger. Mum found a piece of bread for me in her handbag. Members of the Lotta Svärd were serving coffee in one of the far corners of the hall, but this was no use for us as my mum did not drink coffee and naturally I did not either. Finally, my mum found an enamel mug, filled it with water, which helped me with swallowing the piece of dry bread.


At last, we were told to get a move on. My mum helped me put my jacket, mittens, and hat on. With one hand she carried our suitcase and with the other she held my hand. A cold wintery blast welcomed us to the outside air. My life had changed so dramatically during the past day that I hardly remembered how carefree my life had seemed yesterday morning. I had been looking forward to seeing my dad during his short break, yet I understood that given the change in circumstances I was not going to be seeing my dad after all. But I felt safe as long as I had my mum close by. Mum and I stood obediently in a queue, following the example set by others. Several army trucks had gathered in the courtyard. When we got to the front of the queue, a man in a uniform helped my mum by lifting me up to the tray of the truck. Each army truck had about 25 people sitting on two makeshift plank benches, facing each other. When the soldier came to close the tailgate of our truck, an elderly man beside me asked him: “Where are you taking us?” “Out of the city. I don’t know anything more than that yet”. Soon the truck started moving in the darkness, slowly following several other trucks. I wondered why none of the streetlights were on, but I thought I better not ask. In fact, I saw no lights anywhere.


I had fallen asleep on my mum’s lap. I woke up as our truck came to a sudden stop. I heard the sound of a kind man’s voice saying: “You can come too lady with the little boy. You are welcome to stay at our place”. “You have only been ordered to take four evacuees. Are you sure you want to take them too?” said another voice. “We have plenty of room” said the man with the kind voice. My mum lifted me into the lap of the man standing in the darkness. I felt his warm and strong hands surrounding me. The soldier who had been driving our truck closed the tailgate after my mum was down, hurried into the truck cabin and drove off. We watched the truck turn onto the main road and disappear into the night. We realised we had arrived at a large farmhouse. The strong man carrying me in one arm, took my mum’s suitcase in the other and started towards the house, which was situated a little way up the hill. My mum followed a step or two behind us. Another four women from the truck were also left at this farmhouse. Two of them were young like my mum and two of them were old like my grandma. The younger women didn’t have much with them, but the two older ones had twice as much. They walked back and forth, moving their bags a little, then going back for their other bags and so forth. Two young women with white aprons hurried from inside the farmhouse to give the ladies a helping hand.

The kind man carrying me ushered us all into the farmhouse’s large main room. He introduced us to his family. The elderly woman with a scarf on her head was his mother. The smiling young man next to the fireplace was his brother and the young woman sitting in a wheelchair was his sister. His sister must have been very sick to be sitting in a wheelchair, I thought. It was close to midnight when we arrived, so the other women were told they had beds upstairs, whereas my mum and I stayed downstairs in the huge white main living room. When my mum put me asleep that night, I prayed for my dad that God would keep him safe. Then I closed my eyes.


I woke up the next morning full of excitement. The house was huge and full of all sorts of adventures. All the guests were invited to the dining room for breakfast. We were treated so kindly and warmly, like we were long lost relatives. The kind man took me with him to the barn to see sheep and calves. I had almost forgotten the bombing and the frightening sights of the burning city. Yet every now and then, during the following two weeks, I heard the adults talking or heard the radio news. I understood that they were very worried about the war, the welfare of our country and had great concern for their loved ones. My mum didn’t know where my dad was placed either. One sunny day as mum and I were standing outside in the farmhouse yard we could see over 20 planes flying above us, but I had no idea if they were our planes or that of our enemy’s.


That year the arrival of Christmas surprised everyone! People’s attention was drawn to the war, so Christmas preparations naturally took backstage. Yet Christmas Eve dawned just like any other year, even though this year was not like any other year. Finland was at war. It had been snowing a lot and the outdoors were full of deep snow. Suddenly, one of the younger women squealed in delight as she looked out the window. Everyone, including me, hurried to have a look what was happening. I could make out the outline of a man in a uniform, struggling to make his way toward the farmhouse, sinking again and again into the deep snow, but nevertheless making slow progress. The squealing woman next to me was convinced it is her fiancée but the more I studied the man making his way through the deep snow, the more familiar he looked to me. Oh, that happy moment when I recognised him! “That’s my dad! That’s my dad!” I kept calling out, as I jumped up and down in one spot. When my dad was close enough to the house, I ran to the front door, opened it, and yelled from the top of my voice: “Welcome home dad!” My dad scooped me up, planted a wet kiss on my cheek and whispered, “Merry Christmas son!”


My dad told us that he had hurt his hand, which had caused blood poisoning. Because of this he had not been sent to the frontline but instead to a hospital where he had stayed a few days. Because Christmas was so close, the doctor had let him go home to rest over the Christmas holidays. So here I was sitting on my dad’s lap in our huge white main living room on Christmas eve, while mum and dad were discussing the war situation. “I don’t know where this war will take me still. I have been working in the firearms storage warehouse for now. But they are sending men even my age to the front line”. “Samuli and I pray for you every day” I heard my mum say in her soft voice. My dad looked at me, then looked at mum. I could see tears in my dad’s eyes.

The younger of the two brothers knocked at our door and invited us to come join in to celebrate Christmas with the rest of the household in the great room. My mum had told him earlier that my dad knew how to play the piano, so my dad was invited to do so. I looked around the room. There was the old lady of the house, her two sons, her daughter in the wheelchair, the two young women and the two older ladies from the truck, as well as my mum and my dad. Ten adults and me, one child. Many of us strangers to each other until the war started, yet all of us together now celebrating Christmas. My dad offered to play hymn number 170. He said something about the words being very meaningful to the men fighting in the war right now. My dad started singing with his powerful voice and my mum joined in with her beautiful vibrato.

Jumala ompi linnamme – A strong fortress is our God

ja vahva turva aivan – and strong refuge

On miekkamme ja kilpemme – He is our sword and our shield

ajalla vaaran, vaivan – during times of danger and difficulty

Se vanha vainooja, kavala kauhea – That old persecutor, devious, aweful

on kiivas kiukkuinen ja julma hirmuinen – is hot-tempered and cruel

Vain Herra hänet voittaa – Only the Lord can overcome him.

Everyone had joined into the singing by now. There was not one dry eye in the room as my dad played the last verse:

Se sana seisoo vahvana – The word stands strong

ne ei voi sitä kestää – they can’t edure it

kun kanssamme on Jumala – when God is with us

ken meiltä voiton estää? – who can prevent us from winning?

Jos veis he henkemme – Even if they take our lives

Osamme, onnemme, ne heidän olkohon – or take our livelihoods and happiness, let them take them

Vaan meidän iät on Jumalan valtakunta – But ours will forever be God’s Kingdom

The Christmas meal was set, and we all sat around the table. One of the women started crying and ran out of the room. I could see the sadness and the worry in all the people’s eyes. Every one of the adults around that Christmas table carried a heavy burden, worrying about our small little country of Finland. The kind man of the house gave me my only Christmas present that year. It was a small red hand carved car he had made himself just for me. He also gave a box of handkerchiefs to all the adults. What could have been a more fitting Christmas gift that sad Christmas than a box of handkerchiefs. After our Christmas meal, I sat on the floor and played with my brand-new red car.

Note from Jaana: My dad surely was a war child. 1939 when he was 4 years old was his first Christmas he remembers. Yet the war went on for 6 years. That means the first Christmas after the war had ended was when he was 10 years old! That just makes me want to cry!

I often think of myself as a bridge between Finland and Australia, between the older generations before me and the younger generations after me. What makes the bridge more significant is not only the change in countries and cultures but also the change in languages. Whereas I could communicate with my grandparents, learn about their lives and experiences, the generations after me don’t only have cultural barriers but also language barriers. How are they ever going to hear these stories, if I don’t give them voice, if I don’t take the time to translate them? How sad would it be that dad’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren sit at the same Christmas table with him, never even knowing that these were his first memories of his life, that this was the story of the first ever Christmas he remembers. A story that could make a wonderful storyline for a movie, yet a storyline that my dad and my grandparents lived as part of their own personal history. While writing this, my heart and my empathy went to my Elina grandmother in a whole new way. I was thinking of her, a 24-year-old young woman, alone with a 4-year-old son, finding herself in the middle of a dreadful bombing, as war breaks out, with no modern-day luxuries like mobile phones to get in touch with anyone she knows or TVs to find out what is happening. Yet she was able to always keep calm and peaceful, so much so that she was able to give my dad a sense of security and peace even during the most terrifying circumstances imaginable. Then I think of my dad telling us as children, that silence is the sound of Christmas. Maybe silence is the sound a Christmas because silence means peace and not war. May we all spend some time in silence each Christmas.     

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