Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Finnish Christmas - Suomen Joulu - Finlands Jul

Merry Christmas! - Hyvää Joulua! - God Jul!

As a disclaimer, I am actually visiting relatives in Stockholm on Christmas, and so I wrote this post in advance of Christmas based on my experience with the season leading up to Christmas in Turku.  As with so much of Finland, there are some things that are paradoxical to my American brain, so I will start with those...

More Christian, less religious
Finland is obsessed with Christmas.  Just look at their advertising webpage This Is Finland and you will see a huge amount of coverage that isn't given to the rest of the year.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Finland has more Christians than the US (81% compared to 73%).  The surprising part is that they are much less devout than Americans (over 78% of Americans believe in God, compared to apparently 33% of Finns) and so Christmas seems to be very much about tradition rather than a spiritual celebration.  From what my friends have said, it seems like their version of Thanksgiving, where the goal is to visit out with your family and if they happen to be religious and spiritual then you can find religious and spiritual meaning in the day.  The traditions below are some of the ones that seem deeply ingrained in Finnish society, some of which are even taught in the public schools.

This obsession with Christmas is surprising to me because it really seems like the opposite of the US in attitudes toward religion.  In both countries the the official political position on religion and what the citizens believe seem opposite, but then the two countries are the opposite of each other.  Finland has two official state churches (which benefit from a 1% tax) to which many apparently belong but few believe in, while the US officially has a separation of church and state in its Constitution but this year was the first time in its Congress' 220-year history where an officially nonreligious person took office.

Enough about politics and religion.  Here is what you actually care about and won't get you in an argument on Christmas...

Pikkujoulut = Christmas party
Pikkujoulut is the Finnish Christmas party (literally "Little Christmases" because for some reason party titles are generally plural) and it follows the same idea as the American Christmas parties that happen leading up to the actually holiday.  The only difference is the food served (see below) and that instead of a Secret Santa/Yankee/White Elephant Gift Swap (whatever you call it and do where you are from), Santa actually shows up and you sit on his lap and choose a present from has bag of goodies.  They also have many more pikkujoulut parties than we have Christmas parties because just about every organization holds them, not only companies.

Terrible picture of me opening a present from Santa.  Santa in this case is also American (one of my friends here also on Fulbright); the Finns all manage to find a full Santa outfit.
Joulukuusi = Christmas tree
Joulukuusi is Finnish for Christmas tree ("kuusi" is specifically a type of spruce I believe, also the number 6, and is an excellent example of the importance of vowel length in Finnish because "kusi" with just one "u" means "piss").  Overall the tradition is very similar to that in the US, but they seem generally much more excited about them than we Americans are and have them up just about everywhere.

I pulled over on my bike to see why everyone was at a standstill, staring at the police cars that were blocking the intersection.  Then came a truck with a stick to measure the height, and then I saw the reason for the crazy traffic - the traditional Turku Cathedral joulukuusi coming in on a flatbed truck!
The joulukuusi from the picture above, delivered out front of the 800 year old cathedral, pictured at like 4 or 5 in the afternoon (it gets dark super early!).
Joulupukki = Santa Claus
The Finns claim that Joulupukki (Santa Claus apparently literally translates as "Christmas goat" for reasons I cannot understand) comes from northern Finland, in the region called Lapland.  You can even visit his village and take pictures with him and everything, but my Danish friends claim that he is actually from Greenland, and I think in the US we say he lives somewhere in Canada.  Importantly, he personally visits families on Christmas Eve, which must be how he gets to the US during the night before Christmas.  I wonder which countries across the world he visits on which days.

Though Santa apparently lives in Rovaniemi, he is capable of making an appearance at Turku's Christmas market, even bringing his wife along.
The most important part of any holiday!   Even the school cafeterias get in the Christmas spirit here and serve some of the food as the holiday nears.  Recipes for the typical food can be found at this awesome website, so I will group them together by what I have seen served together.

The foods below have been served at pretty much every Christmas party I attended.  Pizza also was pretty common, but that is probably just because it is easy rather than because it is Christmasy...

Glöggi - a kind of spiced wine that can also be made alcohol free.  Some of my friends have their own secret recipes (so secret I cannot share them online here!), but mostly you can just buy it in stores, then add your own booze (vodka or red wine are classics)
Piparkakku (literally "pepper cake") - Gingerbread!  The only thing that is consistently different between American gingerbread (at least my family's) and all the recipes I have seen for Finnish gingerbread is that in Finland they let the dough sit in a cool place overnight.  I think this is why theirs ends up thin and crispy while ours ends up thick and soft.  Some recipes also call for orange zest, which is something I am not used to in gingerbread.
Riisipuuro (literally "rice porridge") - Rice porridge/pudding.  Tastes a lot like the one my grandmother makes.  However, up here in the Nordic countries (at least Denmark and Finland) they have a tradition of putting one whole almond in so that whoever finds it is the next to be married (kind of like  the baby in New Orleans King Cake on Mardi Gras).  Apparently the strategy if you find it is to hide it in your mouth so that everyone else keeps eating since they think it isn't found yet.  Those sneaky Finns (or maybe just my friends)...

Finnish gingerbread (pipparkakku) in the shape of Moomins!  I plan to put a recipe up soon, but in the meantime you can find one here
Joulu = Christmas
The big Christmas feast I believe is on the 24th.  Apparently it is hard to say what the specific Christmas meal is because it varies so much between regions.  For example, my friend whose family is from the Turku region (near the coast) eats mostly fish (and no other meat) dishes for Christmas but his wife whose family is from the region near Russia eats mostly meat (and no fish).  So there can apparently be zero overlap between their Christmas food traditions (which I would guess is probably true for the different regions of many countries), and what I am about to list is just a list of some of the dishes that I have seen here in the coastal Turku region.

Gravadlohi - A type of cured (instead of cooking with heat, it is "cooked" with lots of salt and seasonings) salmon that is awesome with mustard and dill sauce.
Rosolli - Salad made from beets.  Pretty delicious (but be warned that beets can turn your kusi interesting colors!)
Lanttulaatikko/Porkkanalaatikko = Turnip/Carrot Casserole.  Turnip is apparently a Christmas food here, and I have yet to figure out why.  Carrots also used to be a very special imported luxury food (like 300 years ago), which perhaps is why it is a special Christmas food.
Kinkku - Baked ham.  My friends all have stories about how early their family gets up to start baking the ham, just like we do for Thanksgiving turkey, except that it seems ham takes much longer because they apparently all start the night before.
Joulutortti - Christmas pastries.  These are little pinwheels made of flaky dough with a generous dollop of plum jelly in the middle and covered in powdered sugar.  Most people make them by buying the dough and jelly and just assembling from there.


Finns love their music.  It seems to be an especially important part of the Christmas celebrations as just about every musical group in and around Turku had an Advent Concert.  They listen to a lot of our crappy (sorry *classic*) Christmas music as well (and by listen, I mean have it on in the stores like we do), but they also do translations and have a number of songs that we don't.  For instance, We wish you a Merry Christmas seems to be fairly popular (and hilarious in a Finnish accent), Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer is instead Petteri Punakuono, Handel's Messiah is not performed often, and Hoosianna is a song we do not have at all.  

I love music too, and am trying to collect Finnish music as a side project while I am here, so here is a way-too-long list of songs (I will put a * next to my favorites; + means I have heard it a bunch; also many of them are also in Swedish so I try to indicate the language that I have heard it in most often):

Translations of songs popular in the US
Petteri Punakuono = Rudolf the Red-nosed reindeer
+Jouluyö, Juhlayö = Silent night (literally "Christmas night, party/celebration night")

Songs for churches (Finns seem to all know these and stand up to sing them at the bazillion Christmas concerts put on by just about every musical group in the city)
+*Hoosianna (FIN)
*Julvisa (SWE) = "Christmas song"
+*Maa on niin kaunis (FIN) = "The world is so beautiful"

Other choral songs
+Jul, jul strålande jul (SWE) = "Christmas, bright Christmas" (my orchestra's recording)

Sibelius-composed Christmas songs
Jo on joulu täällä (FIN) = "Christmas is already here"

Depressing Christmas songs (because Finns can sometimes be a glum sort of folk)
+Varpunen Jouluaamuna (FIN) = "Sparrow on Christmas morning"
Sylvian Joululaulu (FIN) = "Sylvia's Christmas Song"

Children's songs
+*Tonttujen Jouluyö (FIN) = "Elves' Christmas Eve"; 32-33 (there is a funny dance that goes with the chorus, which you can see in this video)
+Joulumaa (FIN) = "Christmas world"

In addition to performing in 3 Advent Concerts, I attended another 2 and still did not make it to all of them that were held in this town of just 180,000 people!  This is from when I got to be an audient (is that a word?) at the Turku University Orchestra and Choir performance at one of the big churches in town.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Finnish Independence Day - Itsenäisyyspäivä/Självständighetsdag

A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate to play with my orchestra (Akademiska Orkestern vid Åbo Akademi) at a special event celebrating Finland's Independence Day (December 6 - Itsenäisyyspäivä in Finnish, Självständighetsdag in Swedish).  It was wonderful that I, as a foreigner, got to participate in the celebrations of what is probably the most important day to the state of Finland. I was surprised that it was also completely unlike any American Independence Day celebrations I have seen.

Random video of Independence Day in Helsinki, on the steps of the Lutheran cathedral.  This is the hymn from Sibelius' Finlandia (LISTEN TO IT IF YOU HAVE NEVER HEARD IT BEFORE!!), which is considered the unofficial national anthem of Finland because it is so good.  You can look up the lyrics, but my Finnish friends tell me they are way more awesome in Finnish.

Random video of the official national anthem - Maame laulu, filmed in Turku.  I think this took place on Christmas during Turku's 700-year-old tradition of declaration of the Christmas peace.  Often a verse will be sung in each of Finland's national languages (Finnish and Swedish), but here it appears to just be in Finnish.

For starters, it is NOT a drinking holiday but rather a day of sober reflection on what it means to be Finnish.  Finnish flags are flown from all flagpoles, which is an unusual sight because there are only a few days of the year where that is allowed (unlike the US where many private homes fly American flags throughout the year).  The highlight of the day is actually a televised ceremony where the President shakes the hands of many important people, one after the other, for a few hours.

If you feel so inclined, here is a recording of the excitement that is the president shaking hands with lots of people.  Finns love this stuff!

History of the day
For those who are unfamiliar with Finnish history, the day celebrates Finland's independence from Russia, which was declared in 1917.  Before that, it had been a semi-autonomous region of Russia for just over 100 years, taken from Sweden during the Napoleonic wars.  This is really interesting because it means that Finland as a sovereign nation is still not 100 years old.  However, this Independence appears to only be a minor aspect of the modern celebration since I don't think there is anyone alive who remembers it.  What seems more important to the Finns is their continued independence through World War II, because they had a set of wars with Russia that could easily have been lost.  However, the Russian strategy was just to use their superior numbers (Finland only had around 3 million people at the time) so the Finns ended up killing around 5 Russians for every one of them that died.  This war involved the whole country, and pretty much everyone my age has at least one relative who was in the war, so it still is very much part of the modern mentality.  It is a really fascinating war (Helsinki is the only capital of a European country involved in WWII that was not occupied) and I suggest that anyone interested in the military history of Europe read up on it - Winter War and Continuation War.

Two languages
One interesting aspect of the ceremony for me was that everyone spoke in both Finnish and Swedish.  Just as we in the US we have many people who only speak English and many who only speak another language (Spanish comes to mind as a common native language), I have friends here who only speak Finnish or only Swedish.  It was therefore surprising to me that the ceremony was given in both languages, even though I knew that both are official.  It is very interesting to see how a country can have a minority (the Finland Swedish, aka Finlandssvenskar, aka Suomenruotsalaiset, only make up something like 5% of the population) that still has many rights.  I think it has something to do with the fact that historically they were the ruling class (when Finland was part of Sweden) and the fact that many important people who helped create Finnish independence (including Sibelius himself) were Finlandssvenskar.  More on this another time.

A surprising keynote speech
What surprised me most about this day was the keynote address given as part of the ceremony we played at.  The room was full of veterans in uniform, but as far as I could tell with my limited Finnish and Swedish skills, the speaker did not make any reference to them, and they definitely did not stand up or receive applause.  This was very surprising to me as an American because I cannot think of a single patriotic event where we don't acknowledge them "and the sacrifices they have made to keep us free".  Yet here in Finland, the room can be filled with decorated veterans and they go unrecognized, apart from those who brought the flag in.  Perhaps it is because Finland has not fought any wars (or "police actions") since WWII?

So what did the speaker discuss if not the military?  Surprisingly, the very thing I came to Finland to study - global sustainability.  He first asked the audience to discuss with each other what "independence" means to them (answers given included "own language" and "ability to make own decisions").  Then, the rest of the speech was about (again, this is based only on my understanding of Finnish and Swedish, but I think I got the gist of most of it) out-of-control population growth (he showed a bunch of graphs), the economics of food, and how if we wish to remain truly independent we must act in sustainable way.  He even mentioned that this year was the first year where more people died of obesity than of hunger (but I have no idea what his numbers are based on).  No wonder Finland is such an environmentally-focused country.

My Independence Day in Finland, complete with veterans and a speech about global sustainability.  We later played several patriotic songs on the stage, including Finlandia, Maame Laulu, and the Sibelius Violin Concert (patriotic because Sibelius is a national hero).

Monday, December 2, 2013

Finnish Music!

Finland does not celebrate Thanksgiving (Kiitospäivä -- "Thanksday" -- as they call it), but I still spent the day being thankful for all the wonderful things in my life.  I visited my American friends in Helsinki to tour Fazer, the big Finnish chocolate factory (and discovered that there is indeed such thing as too much all-you-can-eat chocolate), and to record some of the Finnish music that we have been working on.  We found the music thanks to musicfinland.fi, which was recommended by a friend because the reason it exists is to help people discover Finnish music.  So, we sent them an email describing our situation, and a few days later we had the name of a book of Finnish Works for Piano Trio (violin, cello, piano), arranged by Josef Móró.  Since our French horn was willing to transpose and play the cello part, we were good to go!

Looking through the pieces in the book, I was interested to see that many of them are about nature in some form.  There are a lot involving summer (kesä) and one awesome one called Under the North Star (Täällä Pohjantähden alla).  It seems that Finns thoughts truly are never far from nature, even in their classical music.

We spent our Thanksgiving evening making a few recordings, some of which you can find below.  Enjoy, and happy late Thanksgiving!

Kesäpäivä Kangasalla (A Summer's Day in Kangasala), by Gabriel Linsén

Kesäilta (Summer Evening), by Oska Merikanto

Berceuse from Kehtolaulu (Lullaby), by Armas Järnefelt

If you are interested in Finnish music, you should check out Olivia's (the pianist) blog because she is here in Finland studying the influence of folk music on their most famous composer - Jean Sibelius.

Taking a break from recording in one of the Sibelius Academy's practice rooms