Santa for Hire

Christmas is coming and there are a few new traditions for us as we celebrate in the northern hemisphere.

Seurasaari

Seurasaari

For one, the day is celebrated on the 24th December in Finland, which in New Zealand is traditionally a day of last minute shopping as we prepare to open presents and feast on the 25th.

Finnish Christmas fare

Finnish Christmas fare

Another difference here is that Joulupukki (Santa) is expected to appear in every home, to deliver presents himself.

Miko & Joulupukki last year

Miko & Joulupukki last year

In NZ, we put the presents under the tree and leave out a plate of cookies, a carrot (for the reindeer) and a glass of milk or beer for Santa. In the morning we wake to find – Oh! Santa must have been (entering via the chimney) as the cookies are gone, the beer bottle’s empty and there are a few more pressies either under the tree or in our Christmas stockings.

Christmas 2014 in Lappeenranta

Christmas 2014 in Lappeenranta

The fact that Santa himself comes to call in Finland is really nice, but it can create a problem for anyone with a quick-witted child who notices that Santa arrives just as Dad seems to leave….and what about families where there is no suitable male to take on the role?

Christmas elves serving porridge at Seurasaari 2014

Christmas elves serving porridge at Seurasaari 2014

Well, that’s why many people hire a Santa, a big business in Helsinki with websites dedicated to it. Here you can find men who upload photos and a brief description of their experience.

NZ Santa (Source: Reasons to Believe )

Santa in New Zealand (Source: Reasons to Believe )

The best are those who advertise themselves as  ‘sober’, ‘non-smoking’ and often ‘well-masked.’

Although a job is a job after all. A friend of ours who doesn’t celebrate Christmas told us he instead goes to his local pub where all the Santas end their rounds for an after work drink.

Source: abc.net.au

Source: abc.net.au

http://www.joulupukkipalvelu.fi/joulupukit/ – Santa Service website

Secrets of the summer cottage

Helsinki empties over June and July as Finns escape the city and head to their summer cottages. While we could rent one ourselves, we were really pleased last weekend to spend time with Finnish friends at theirs and get an inside look at this part of Finnish life.

Photo: Heikki Puomilla

Early morning at Hirvijärvi      Photo: Heikki Puomila

About an hour out of Helsinki, we joined Heikki and Anu and their young daughter on the shores of Hirvijärvi (Moose Lake). Heikki has been holidaying here since he was a child as his grandfather built a house in the same spot.

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Although the house has been rebuilt and modern features such as electricity and running water added, the composting toilet is still outside. While I did scare myself with the thought of bears during a midnight visit, it was a huge relief not to have to check for large Australian spiders.

Composting loo

Composting loo

Part of the joy of the weekend was the chance to experience Finnish life outside of the city. After lunch we met with the local community committee, many of whom have been holidaying for generations around the shores of the same lake.

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We were warmly greeted and joined in a game where we tossed 2 euro coins at bottles of wine, with the one landing closest being the winner. In spite of my focus and good technique, I was narrowly beaten by a 12-year old boy.

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On returning to our cottage, the men and kids went fishing off the jetty, catching three small fish with bait made from flour and water.

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Heikki also showed Miko how they identify local butterflies, something his family have an avid and professional interest in.

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After a dinner of hamburgers grilled on the fire, we cooked pancakes down by the outside sauna.

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We each had a turn at flipping the pancakes, which were delicious and served with jam.

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After dinner, it was time for a huge bonfire, a tradition lit to mark the end of summer and the end of the cottage season. Heikki also let off a few fireworks he had leftover from the year before.

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As the sun dropped low in the sky the most incredible full moon rose to take its place. People lit candles out on their jetties as a way to farewell summer, with a small house on an island soon surrounded by flickering lights.

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After the children went to bed, Heikki, Jonathan and I hit the sauna, which is heated by a wood-burning fireplace inside.

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Heikki made a couple of vihta (bunches of birch leaves) and taught us how to beat ourselves and each other with them to really get the blood flowing (we have been doing it far too softly and slowly apparently).

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Each time we got too hot we headed outside to the lake, where we swam by the light of the full moon. At one point there were also huge fireworks going off overhead.

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I really can’t describe just how incredible it was to be swimming at midnight in a lake lit by candles and the moon, with fireworks bursting into bloom above us. While we all know we have another long winter ahead of us, instead of being a sad occasion it was the perfect way to say goodbye to summer.

To follow: Day Two at the summer cottage, where we head onto the lake and into the forest, finding evidence of moose and something to rival Australian spiders..

The Night of the Dead

I quite like cemeteries. There’s one in Parnell, Auckland that has stories about the early white settlers and their relationships with local Maori. I’ve also been to one in Perth, Western Australia that has cages over the freshly dug graves so that wild kangaroos won’t dig them up. But I didn’t expect to be wandering around in the dark in a Finnish cemetery last night.

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Hietaniemi Cemetery is a huge piece of land that contains the graves of some of Finland’s most notable people, including fallen soldiers. We walked past it every day on our way to the beach last summer and I was fascinated by what I saw.

A stall outside sells potted plants for placing on graves. This intrigues me because in NZ we tend to just lay fresh or plastic flowers down. In Finland however they plant the flowers into the gravesite so that they continue to grow.

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They also have a bucket of trowels and scissors you can borrow to dig the plants in and tend to the gravesite.

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Traditionally burial in Finland has been free for members of the Lutheran Church (attendance not compulsory) and I believe you can pay someone to tend to your loved ones grave if you are unable to do it. Burial plots in NZ and Australia can be quite expensive and there are advertisements on TV to get funeral insurance so you can have the send-off you want.

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As we move into the colder months in Helsinki the plants being sold for grave sites are becoming more hardy, things that have more of a chance of surviving winter.

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Yesterday was All Saints Day, where Finnish people remember those who have passed away. We don’t mark this day in NZ so were surprised by the public holiday.

Finnish traditions go a long way back, including Joulupukki (the Christmas goat who later became known as Santa Claus), solstice celebrations and children dressing as witches on Palm Sunday. I guess the missionaries who arrived in NZ in the 18th century only brought with them the traditions they wanted to keep and not any they may have considered pagan.

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It’s traditional for Finnish people to visit the graves of loved ones on 1 November. The cemetery stalls and markets were selling havu – branches bundled together to lay on graves – and candles. I tentatively headed off to the cemetery by myself last night in the dark to witness this part of Finnish life.

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The streets around the cemetery were full of people and cars, as though there was a major event on. The grounds were full of people, including children, lighting candles on graves.

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In spite of the crowds, at times I would find myself alone, wandering amongst the headstones. Looking down towards the water I could see thousands of candles, as the bells tolled in the chapel. It was 3 degrees and my breath made white clouds in the night air.

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I was amazed that candles had been lit on nearly every grave, even on those of people who had died in the early 1900s – it seems no one is forgotten on this day.

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Wandering around the cemetery at night I actually tried to scare myself, narrating a horror movie in my head with me as the lead actor, but it didn’t really work. There was a special kind of stillness about the place. It seemed like a beautiful time to remember those you’ve lost.

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I think this is a beautiful tradition that would be good to commemorate in NZ. We are such a multi-cultural country I’m sure there are Maori traditions or newer cultures that have brought with them similar customs. I think a lesson from Finland is that even the things which we’ve buried need not be forgotten.