As most friends, acquaintances and random passers by know, I tend to get excited about Christmas a little bit too early. A slightly chilly morning at the end of September and all of a sudden I am convinced Christmas is approaching. Which, of course it is, but only in 3 months time. The truth is that I enjoy looking forward to Christmas. For me that is almost more important than Christmas itself. In the North, what is Christmas really, but a consolation and distraction in the darkest time of the year? As the days grow shorter and we hide inside our coats and scarves, Christmas is crucial for preventing us from slipping into depression. We need to have something to look forward to, except the seemingly never ending darkness. This is of course particularly true in the Nordic countries where winter can last up to half a year. Christmas is a holiday that takes advantage of the darkness. In general I hate it when mornings get dark. Waking up becomes much more difficult when your body simply refuses to believe that the night is over. But if you light a candle on the table in the early morning gloom, suddenly the atmosphere turns cozy. Christmas lights in the street and in shop windows create a festive atmosphere which would not have the same effect without the darkness. In Helsinki the turning on of the Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu is an official event accompanied by a parade and visit of Santa Claus.
The official period for awaiting Christmas begins with the first of advent, which is held on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, at the end of November or beginning of December. A German tradition which has come to Finland through Sweden is lighting four candles, one for each Sunday of advent, with one candle alight on the first Sunday, two candles alight on the second etc. The first candle symbolizes awaiting, the second one lights the Christmas joy, the third one stands for Christmas peace and the fourth one is the candle of love.
In Finland advent is punctuated by a couple of festivities. One of them is Finnish Independence Day, on 6 December. It coincides with Saint Nicholas day, which is celebrated as a Christmas related festivity in some European countries, but not in Finland. Instead Independence day becomes a sort of feast that is unrelated to Christmas but is a part of the Christmas calendar. The tradition is to light two white and blue candles in your window, which fits nicely in with the Christmas tradition of lighting up the long evenings with candles.
Another festivity, which is more important for the Swedish speaking population of Finland than the Finnish speaking one, is Saint Lucia day, celebrated on 13 December. Saint Lucia was a Christian girl born in Syracuse in 283 A.D. and there are two versions of her story. According to the first one she was condemned to death by burning for being a Christian, but the flames would not touch her. Then her eyes were gouged out, but she did not go blind. The second story tells that a heathen boy fell in love with her because of her beautiful eyes and therefore she gave them to him on a platter. Most versions agree that she ended up dying by sword. Luckily the Nordic festivities do not involve any gruesome eye plucking, but concentrate on the idea of Lucia as a bringer of light. Girls dress up in white gowns with candles on their heads and a red belt (for the sword wound) and sing the song of Saint Lucia. In Finland we choose an official Lucia who is crowned in the Helsinki Cathedral, after which she takes part in a parade that travels through the centre of the city.
What all these traditions have in common is the bringing of light to an otherwise dark world. The same way that the joyfulness of Christmas brings light to our hearts. (Ouch! – that sounded cheesy…). Of course, a celebration of winter solstice is what Christmas or Yuletide was all about, until it got hijacked by Christianity. It was a pagan feast to celebrate the return of the sun. In Babylon it was the feast of the Son of Isis (Goddess of Nature) while in Rome the feast went by the name of Saturnalia, to celebrate the re-birth of the sun-god Saturn. In Northern Europe the winter solstice festival of Yule was celebrated and in the Nordic languages Christmas is still called by this old pagan name, Jul in the scandinavian languages and Joulu in Finnish.
So, light some candles and enjoy the darkness while it lasts!