White Christmas

I have only ever had one white Christmas as an adult, and it was truly magical.

My family lived in a small country town in the eastern side of Finland, 60 kilometres from the Russian boarder, called Savitaipale. This is where my paternal grandfather’s side of the family is from.

The town is so small, at best of times it’s peaceful and tranquil, but the closer it got to Christmas, the quieter and calmer it got.

Finns wish each other “joulurauhaa” which means “Christmas peace”, but unless you have experienced a Nordic Christmas, it’s hard to describe just how important part of Christmas “peace” really is.

Here in Australia, it feels as though the closer Christmas Day gets, the faster the pace and the more frantic life gets. Then we are supposed to come to a sudden stop, rest on the day and enjoy it. Whereas I found the Finnish people descended into Christmas peace, beginning already early December.   

It was an iconic Christmas Eve. White landscapes shrouded in darkness, lit only by ice lanterns on driveways and candles on windows.

I was determined to give my family a traditional Finnish Christmas. Out of the six of us, I was the only one who had been born in Finland, the rest were born in Australia.

We woke up to slow-roasted rice porridge made overnight in the wood-heated oven. I had bought a special gift for the one who found the almond in the porridge.

Out of the kitchen window, I saw snowflakes fluttering down from the sky with such grace and elegance, feathers of white creating a downy nest in every hollow, as if they knew it was a Holy Day.

According to the Finnish tradition, the Christmas tree was freshly cut from the forest and brought inside to thaw the night before. After breakfast the rest of the family went to decorate the tree, while I finished preparing the Christmas meal. The sound of children’s laughter filled our home.

Finland stops midday Christmas Eve when the “Christmas Peace” is declared. Together as a family we watched this on TV. The Declaration of Christmas Peace is a tradition which launches the Christmas celebrations and, in a way, marks its official start. 

Another tradition Finns have, is the hanging of wheat, seeds, and grains on a pole on Christmas Eve, creating a Christmas sheaf for the birds.

When I was a child feeding birds with my grandma was an important part of my Christmases. It’s a tradition with practical and symbolic origins.

My children followed me obediently outside into the snow as we hang our Christmas sheaf for the birds to eat.

Christmas sauna was next. It is perhaps one of the oldest Christmas traditions in Finland and the most important event in preparation for Christmas. It cleanses the body and mind.

The sauna is washed properly, and fresh bench covers, candles and lanterns are brought to the sauna to create the right atmosphere.

My oldest son was 12 years old at the time and he had the important job of warming up the lakeside sauna. He did this job brilliantly. Because a proper wood-heated sauna takes hours to heat, he started already early in the morning.

There is something about a country Christmas sauna that still has the power to move me. The silence and quietness of it is soul-stirring.

Imagine a perfect winter wonderland, a snow globe type, a landscape frosted with sweet whiteness, a frozen lake and tree branches heavy with snow like a woolly white doona. The air is crisp, the knee-deep snow white and glistening, like sparkling gems. Magnificent winter picture-book scenery as far as the eye can see.

The colder the temperature, the more subdued the scent of the air, yet the smell of burning wood cannot be concealed. The sight of smoke rising from the little red wooden sauna’s chimney is irresistible. Christmas sauna is calling me, it’s alluring, enticing, and inviting me into its peace and warmth.

The afternoon was then spent enjoying an unhurried sauna. It is most important not to rush because Christmas sauna is a time for enjoyment, peace, quiet and relaxation. Finns like taking things slow.

I must give my children ten points, because they were willing to give anything a go. This was our Finnish Christmas experience, so we stopped at nothing.

If you think Finns are eccentric because of their sauna-culture, you have heard nothing yet! Things are going to get a whole lot quirkier still!

It was -10C. The lake next to the sauna was frozen solid, but we cut a hole in it. After sitting in the hot steamy sauna, my children, all beetroot red, ran out the door, following each other. Feeling heightened exhilaration their feet hit the snow. Without a second thought they, one after another, plunged into the near-frozen waters.

The best way to describe the feeling is to say you feel like you are being pricked by pins and needles all over. My children got out even quicker that they got in and ran as fast as they could back into the warmth of the sauna.

Everyone who has tried sauna and ice-swimming knows that when you get back into the sauna, this weird thing starts to happen. You tingle all over. You feel more alive than you ever have before! The sauna is +80C yet you cannot feel the heat at all. Slowly, little by little, you start to feel warm again. You feel incredible, fantastic, and extraordinarily good, and you want to do it again!

There wouldn’t be a Finland without the sauna. It’s in their DNA. Finns do love that after sauna feeling and the Christmas sauna, or Joulusauna, is an ancient tradition that remains as popular as ever in modern day Finland.

When I was a child, it was customary to go to church Christmas Day morning, but we learned that many families have started going late afternoon on Christmas Eve, so we followed suit.

We piled up the family into our blue van and made our way past dozens of ice-lanterns into the awe-inspiring Savitaipale stone church. What surprised us was how packed the church was. We found seating in the wooden pew benches, in the upper balcony section of the church, next to the pipe organ.

Savitaipale church is beautiful and impressive, whilst also being minimalist grey. It’s organ, alter painting, stained glass windows, textiles, chandeliers, and candlesticks add to its charm, but for me the most touching aspect was my personal family history connected to this church. My grandfather and his father, and his father before him, had all attended Christmas Church there. The only difference to us was, instead of driving by car, they arrived by sleigh ride.

When my grandfather was a little boy, their family lived 14 kms from the church. I can only imagine what that early morning sleigh ride to church was like for him on Christmas Day, as their family’s horse Maltti pulled them behind him through the snow-covered forest.

My grandfather, then only a little boy, sat all rugged up at the back, together with the rest of the family. The sleigh ride would have taken them an hour to hour and a half each way. His nose and cheeks must have been all red by the time Maltti-horse pulled up to the church. But what magnificent custom it was!

The pipe organ’s sustained tone accompanied the congregational singing beautifully. Toward the end of the church service, the congregation stood to their feet. The organist opened the shutters, allowing powerful increase of the volume, as the last verse of Martin Luther’s Angel from Heaven (Enkeli Taivaan) filled the sanctuary. “Now all the glory to God, As he gave his only son, That’s why all the angels joyfully, Sing thanks to Him”, was sang with gusto.

That moment steered a mysterious path through my senses. My tears flowed spontaneously. It’s hard to say what it was about it that trigged such an unexpected and powerful emotional response from me. Maybe it was a reminder of past events, experiences, and people, or maybe I was awestruck in the face of the greatness or sheer beauty of the moment. But I know that this lost migrant child had found her roots and felt what it was to belong. The time continuum had folded. Each generation were touching one another. Time itself ceased to exist.

As families around us began to exit the church, my family patiently sat there with me, waiting, and allowing me to fully feel it all.  

The meal was a traditional Finnish Christmas dinner with a variety of fish, baked ham, casseroles, beetroot salads and freshly baked rye bread. For dessert the family chose Lappish squeaky baked cheese with cloudberries, glögi and gingerbread.

Being used to the gift exchange being the highlight of Christmas, it intrigues me that now that I think about our Finnish Christmas experience in hindsight, although I do remember it fondly, it by no means was the focal point of the celebrations.

Everyone knows, or at least should know, that Santa Claus comes from Finland. In the morning Santa talks to kids via Santa Claus Hotline, a live stream from his workshop in Rovaniemi and in the evening he visits children in their homes. There is a knock at the door, after which he asks a question: “are there any well-behaved children in this house?” Tradition varies a little house to house, but usually the children sing to Santa before receiving their gifts.

Although I am an understanding mother, love my children dearly and understand them wanting to play with their new toys, there was still one more tradition that I insisted on doing that Christmas Eve night.

One of the Finns’ Christmas Eve rituals and deep-rooted tradition is taking a candle to deceased relatives’ graves. Although walking in a graveyard at Christmas might seem like a strangely odd thing to do, the sight of hundreds of candles glowing in the snow in a serene, wooded cemetery can be surprisingly uplifting.

Many Finns stroll in their local graveyards at Christmas even if none of their relatives are buried there, just to enjoy the tranquil candlelit scene.

The evening was cold and snow-stormy when, together with my family, I visited my paternal grandfather’s and my ancestors’ grave to place a candle there. This to me was an exceedingly meaningful moment and a cherry on top of our Nordic Christmas experience.

I live my life in Australia, the country of my present and future. Yet visiting the grave that Christmas Eve, following the old tradition, I felt (more than rationalised), that Finland is the country of my past and my roots go extraordinarily deep into that soil.

Maybe for a child migrant like me, these moments become so paramount, because all my life I hear questions like: “Where are you from?” “Where is your accent from?” “How do you spell your name?” etc. Then when there is a moment such as this, that I can kneel in front of my ancestors’ grave, with my children by my side, my heart responds to it by this overwhelming feeling of belonging. No-one can take my roots and my heritage away from me. It is part of who I am.

Another summer Christmas is ahead for me. We trade snow for sunshine, rice porridge for Christmas pudding and mulled wine for a frosty cold beer. Still Christmas remains my favourite season of all, and I look forward to it each year in a childlike fashion.

To me Christmas is Christmas no matter what the weather, as long as I can share it with my family. But what wouldn’t I give to experience one more, Finnish Christmas one day.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Hanna says:

    Jaana, your story made me cry. It was so touchable and so true! You tell the story so emotionally and beautifully. Thank you so much for sharing us your stories and feelings ❤️ Christmas is in our hearts where ever we are.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting Hanna! Your feedback about my writing is very much appreciated! Yes! Christmas is! The message is the same no matter where we live!


  2. Dana Lou says:

    What a wonderful Christmas experience it was for you and your family! Makes me want to go to Finland and experience their Christmas traditions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it! Makes me happy!


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