Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Declaring the Christmas peace — joulurauha

One beautiful Finnish tradition Ive just learned about is declaring a Christmas peace, the joulurauha, which has roots back to the 13th century. Once this tradition was common to all the Nordic countries, but only in Finland has it been maintained, almost uninterruptedly, to this day.

In Turku, an old town which is the former capital of Finland, a special ceremony is held to declare a period of Christmas peace. This begins at noon on Christmas Eve and lasts for 20 days. The ceremony includes a hymn, the Finnish national anthem and other music. And its televised — many Finns watch the event on TV as the bells of Turku Cathedral ring.

The declaration is given in Finnish and Swedish. 
Translated into English, it would be:
"Tomorrow, God willing,
is the graceful celebration of the birth of our Lord and Saviour;
and thus is declared a peaceful Christmas time to all,
by advising devotion and to behave otherwise quietly and peacefully,
because he who breaks this peace and violates 
the peace of Christmas
by any illegal or improper behaviour 
shall under aggravating circumstances
be guilty and punished 
according to what the law and statutes prescribe
for each and every offence separately.
Finally, a joyous Christmas feast is wished to all inhabitants of the city."

To all the world — joulurauha. And Hyvää Joulua! (Happy Christmas!)


Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas sauna — a joulusauna

Mauri, my Finnish correspondent when I was writing Some Like it Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories*, told me one of his family traditions was a Christmas sauna, a joulusauna. It was a custom I had never heard of. They chose the day before Christmas Eve, but noted that others might go to sauna the morning of Christmas Eve or even Christmas Day itself.

Christmas came to Finland only about 700 years ago — the tradition of a sauna at midwinter has been around for longer than Christianity has. Like other countries, when Christmas arrived, it added existing midwinter customs which had existed for thousands of years before. Throughout much of Scandinavia, the old beliefs held that on the night of midwinter, the dead returned to the earth, and were appeased with a sauna. Many still keep the sauna warm and throw another ladle of water on the rocks to make it comfortable for when their ancestors, elves or gnomes visit.

A different reason saunas were taken Christmas Eve Day might date to the years when most Finns lived in the country and did heavy farm or logging work. At Christmas, they could take time to be with families, a celebration in itself to relax and eat when time with loved ones was the biggest gift of all.

On a normal day in Finland, Mauri said, one would go to the sauna during the evening. However, on the 24th of December, as the myth goes, the spirits of the dead return after sunset for their sauna. So, to make room for them, Finns take their joulusaunas early in the day, or the day before, like his family.

In fact, millions of saunas are heated in Finland on Christmas Eve, and up to 70% of the population of Finland will enjoy a joulusauna on Christmas Eve. Public saunas even have special Christmas Eve and Christmas Day hours for patrons who don’t have their own saunas.

What a great way to get ready for the celebrations — to get totally clean and to sweat out all the obligations and lists that start taking precedence. And as many rural women in northern climates gave birth in saunas, being the only place with water and heat, its the perfect time to contemplate our Saviors birth, in its own humble location.

My next post will describe another unique Finnish tradition — Christmas peace.

* Buy a copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota, or from local booksellers.For a personally inscribed copy, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: Nikki Rajala, P.O. Box 372, Rockville, Minnesota 56369.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Celebrating Joulu (Yule) in Finland

Like most countries, the Finns enjoy special traditions at Christmastime, called Joulu. Typically, they celebrate on Christmas Eve, with festive meals, gifts from Santa and worship.  

On Christmas Eve, families might visit cemeteries to place candles on the gravestones and then attend worship services. Imagine the beauty of flickering candlelight illuminating the dark (the sun sets around 3:15 p.m.).

The Finnish Santa Claus is called joulupukki. He skips the roof-and-chimney routine — instead he knocks on the front door to deliver Christmas gifts, which then are put under the tree.

Joulupöytä is Christmas dinner, (translated “Yule” table). A traditional meal might feature ham with mustard, various presentations of fish — from gravlax (a smoked salmon) to fish roe, lutefisk and herring (often pickled), casseroles of root vegetables (like rutabagas or carrots) and mixed beetroot salad. The traditional beverage is mulled wine, glögi

Desserts include mixed fruit soup, rice pudding (whoever gets the hidden almond opens their gifts first), the thin, very brittle ginger cookies called piparkakut, and prune jam pastries, the joulutorttu

But before the meal, the worship service and the gift-giving, they enjoy one more tradition — the Christmas sauna. Thats the subject of my next post.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

When in Finland — Giuseppi actually tries a sauna

Giuseppi was impressed with the idea of sauna. Elsewhere in his lengthy account, he describes partaking.  After all When in Rome, ... which he translates to Finland. 
“The heat of the vapour rose to 50 degrees of Celsius; at first I felt a violent oppression, and had it augmented I believe, naked as I was, I should have made my escape from the bath, but forcing myself to persevere, I gradually became accustomed to it, and after some time was able to support a heat of 65 degrees.”
Three cheers for Giuseppi! He made it past the first heat wave, all the way up to 65 degrees (though sauna fans aiming for the 90s and 100s might not be impressed). He never reveals, however, whether he liked it, or he noticed its health benefit. 

Read more fun sauna lore: 
To buy a personally signed copy of Some Like It Hot: The Sauna, Its Lore and Stories from me, send $20 (which includes tax and shipping costs) to: 
Nikki Rajala, 
P.O. Box 372,
 Rockville, Minnesota 56369.  

You can also purchase one from the publisher, North Star Press of St. Cloud, Minnesota,by clicking on the link, or from local booksellers.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Giuseppi Acerbi, part 2

(Giuseppi liked to throw open the door and surprise the sauna bathers, but could hardly manage to
stick around.)
“My astonishment was so great that I could scarcely believe my senses, when I found that those people remain together, and amuse themselves for the space of half an hour, and sometimes a whole hour, in the same chamber, heated to the 70th or 75th degree of Celsius. The thermometer, in contact with those vapours, became sometimes so hot, that I could scarcely hold it in my hands.”
(Note to self: bring gloves to hold onto the thermometer!)
“The Finlanders, all the while they are in this hot bath, continue to rub themselves, and lash every part of their bodies with switches formed of twigs of the birch-tree. In ten minutes they become as red as raw flesh, and have altogether a very frightful appearance.”
(Check the birch switches in his etching they look wicked! And notice that one woman tends the fire and water buckets, fully dressed.) 
“In the winter season they frequently go out of the bath, naked as they are, to roll themselves in the snow, when the cold is at twenty and even thirty degrees below zero. They will sometimes come out, still naked, and converse together, or with anyone near them, in the open air.
“If travelers happen to pass by while the peasants of any hamlet, or little village, are in the bath, and their assistance is needed, they will leave the bath, and assist in yoking, or unyoking, and fetching provender for the houses, or in any thing else without any sort of covering whatever, while the passenger sits shivering with cold, though wrapped up in a good sound wolfs skin. There is nothing more wonderful than the extremities which man is capable of enduring through the power of habit.
“The Finnish peasants pass thus instantaneously from an atmosphere of 70 degrees of heat to one of 30 degrees of cold, a transition of a hundred degrees, which is the same thing as going out of boiling into freezing water! and what is more astonishing, without the least inconvenience; while other people are very sensibly affected by a variation of but five degrees, and in danger of being afflicted with rheumatism by the most trifling wind that blows.
“Those peasants assure you, that without the hot vapour baths they could not sustain as they do, during the whole day, their various labours. By the bath, they tell you, their strength is recruited as much as by rest and sleep. The heat of the vapour mollifies to such a degree their skin, that men easily shave themselves with wretched razors, and without soap.
“Had Shakespeare known of a people who could thus have pleasure in such quick transition from excessive heat to the severest cold, his knowledge might have been increased, but his creative fancy could not have been assisted.”
Oh! who can hold a fire in his hand,
By thinking of the frosty Caucasus?
Or wallow naked in December snow,
By thinking on fantastic summers heat?”