The tradition of a Finnish Christmas in America

Soon my family’s Christmas tree will drip with glittering tinsel as my sisters and I obligingly parade around the living room for my family’s tiny Lucia pageant. We’ll eagerly tear into our stockings long before most of our friends, on the first Advent, a Finnish holiday known as lillajul or “little Christmas.” Patricia Torvalds

The dining room table, nearly luminescent under the glowing yellow lights, will be covered by so much food that the gigantic leg of ham will be relegated to a different table. The sweet smell of my parents’ homemade glogg, or mulled wine, will fill the kitchen. I’m already eagerly awaiting Christmas Eve dinner, my favorite meal of the year and one that lasts for hours. And on Christmas morning I’ll be shaken awake by my youngest sister, Celeste, who has doubtlessly been awake since 7 a.m. waiting for me to crawl out of bed.

My family is Finnish, and although Finland is better known for its Programme for International Student Assessment scores and Angry Birds, the country’s holiday season is unmatched. Every Christmas season has been one long, happy event, beginning with lillajul on the fourth Sunday before Christmas: the first of Advent. My birthday on Dec. 5 brings the level of excitement in my family up another few notches, and it is followed by Luciadagen on Dec. 13. The day celebrates Saint Lucy of Syracuse, and my sisters and I take turns dressing as Lucy, also called Lucia, while the other two of us dress as her attendants. We lead a little procession around the family room while the traditional Lucia song plays, and then we pose for endless photographs to send to extended family members. I remember my confusion as a child when I realized that none of my friends held these traditions, which seemed so inseparable from the holiday season. The sparkle of lights in the streets of Portland wouldn’t be the same without the anticipation of celebration after celebration in the Finnish style I’ve always known.

None of these activities compare to the joy of Christmas Eve, however. Food preparation begins several days before, with massive shopping sprees to Scandinavian stores and, most importantly, to a Russian butcher who sells whole pork shanks. Production of glogg begins more than a week before Dec. 24, and my parents spend their days in the kitchen, working together to make the foods they enjoyed when they were children in Finland and yelling at my sisters and I to help out. The food is finally completed, always just minutes before the arrival of our guests. The feast on Christmas Eve lasts hours and is shared with family friends — a Jewish family we’ve known for years, a tradition as odd as the pickled herring my parents devour. The event concludes late in the evening after we each open a present and slowly become sleepy.

We devote the next day to casually staying around the home, opening presents and eating rice pudding. Another Christmas comes and goes, concluding with much less fanfare than it begins with. The food lasts us another week or two, and a new year marks renewed excitement for the next Finnish Christmas.

Patricia Torvalds is a junior at Riverdale High School, and she writes a monthly column for the Review. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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