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Finnish Christmas
Asa Butcher

Why was I so nervous about Christmas? Could being away from my family for the first time and participating in my first Finnish festivities arouse such turbulent butterflies within my stomach. Perhaps it was the insanity of celebrating a day early on Christmas Eve, my brain was at a loss and my common sense floundered.

Päivi, my fiancée, had briefed me on all the key points of a traditional Christmas day in her homeland and I had even spent two solid weeks learning essential festive vocab; my head was beginning to hurt with too much information. I just wanted it all to begin and like a child it took forever to fall asleep.

Silently it had filtered into our room as we slept, moving closer and closer until it was gently tickling our noses and it smelled delicious. Never before have I awoken to a ham cooking but what a start to the day. As we emerged there was an offering of riisipuuro, a rice pudding containing mixed fruits, cinnamon and one lucky almond; I declined in favour of a simple coffee. As the clock approached midday I was ushered into the lounge where the family were watching the television. On the screen was a broadcast from Finland’s former capital, Turku, where the Chief Executive, Paavo Heinonen, read out the Proclamation of Christmas Peace, which was followed by one minute of silence and finally the singing of the National Anthem in both Finnish and Swedish. I was amazed at the substantial crowd who had turned out to listen and participate in the proceedings despite the minus temperatures.

Immediately the day stepped up a gear as the announcement came that the arrival of the 8ft real fir was imminent. The tree, which had been masterfully picked out and cut down by Paivi's father, was now ready for decoration. I have struggled in the past to decorate an artificial tree, but when you are being spiked, have very few decorations and have an aesthetically obsessed fiancée by your side it becomes slightly harder. Despite all this it looked the business and only encouraged the family cat to attack low-bearing baubles.

Once the sun had hung his hat up it was time for a solemn part of the Finnish Christmas as we headed to the local cemetery. It is tradition for family members to remember the dead and to place a candle upon the grave of their deceased. My senses were overwhelmed at the simple beauty that hundreds of flickering flames in a dark, snow-covered graveyard can bring.

Out of the freeze and into the steam was next on our agenda and who was I to argue? Obligingly I grabbed the vihta, a small collection of birch branches, and liberally beat myself about the body with it, as the saying goes: ‘When in Rome.’ Hot, beaten, refreshed and holding a chilled alcoholic beverage I felt there was something still not complete with this Finnish Christmas. It was one of those feelings that you just cannot put your finger on until the doorbell rings. Stood outside, by a sleigh straining with presents, was Joulupukki, the original Santa, all the way from Lapland. He was genuinely stood in front of me, dressed in the correct garb and handing over a sack load of gifts; my inner child burst out and I felt eight years old again.

Buzzing with excitement I sat down to a veritable feast, my future mother-in- law had lived up to expectations and delivered a superb Christmas dinner. Potato, swede, carrot and liver casseroles were on offer, mushroom salad, eight kilos of ham and a host of Finnish delicacies had been squeezed onto the table to quash my hunger that had been developing all day. Finally it was time to open those presents that had been driving me crazy and, in an act of madness, I was handed the responsibility of distributing them. My composure remained cool and calm throughout, despite some criticism from Paivi's Grandma for giving her too many and struggling with some of the complex words scrawled upon the tags.

With wrapping paper torn off, food moving to my waistline and a glass of mulled wine in my grasp I tried to uncover why I had been so nervous over the past few days. Eventually my reasoning led me to the conclusion that I was just a big kid unconsciously worrying that Father Christmas would pass me by, again.

© Asa Butcher

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