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Covid disrupts Finland's 700-year-old Christmas Peace tradition

The Turku tradition has been in place for nearly 700 years and has only been called off by war and civil unrest.

Joulurauhan julistus Turussa vuonna 2016.
The Declaration of the Christmas Peace in Turku on Christmas Eve 2016. Image: Yle

Finland’s southwestern city of Turku said on Tuesday that it will resort to special safety measures for the annual Declaration of the Christmas Peace on Christmas Eve.

The declaration, which begins at noon on Christmas Eve, signals the start of holiday celebrations in many homes in Finland.

"The tradition will not stop this year, but we will organise it responsibly. When the history of Turku during this time is written decades from now, it will be said that Turku resorted to special measures for the Declaration of the Christmas Peace because of the coronavirus epidemic," Turku mayor Minna Arve said.

The exceptional situation means that members of the public will not be allowed to gather the Old Market Square to observe the ceremony as they usually do. Instead, people will have to follow Yle broadcasts of the event on television, radio and online.

"We want to do everything we can to ensure the epidemic does not worsen. We want to exercise our responsibility for the safety of others during Christmas as well," Arve added.

Safety precautions for choirs, band

Turku’s head of protocol, Mika Akkanen, will read the centuries-old declaration from the balcony of Brinkkala House overlooking an empty market square this year.

"The Christmas Peace has been declared in Turku since the middle ages, and there have been breaks, most recently during the Winter War. We are not threatened by war now, but we face a different threat and a different situation this time. We believe that the situation is not grave enough not to have the event, but residents will not be able to participate physically," Akkanen commented.

As has been the case in previous years, the Navy band will perform, along with the male choirs, Naskalit and Mieskuoro Laulun ystävät, albeit with safety arrangements in place.

"The programme, which has not changed in one hundred years, will not be different this time either. The Navy band and male choirs will be there. Once the cathedral clock strikes [noon] Turku will declare the Christmas Peace as it has always done," Akkanen said.

War, conflict prevent holiday declaration

Turku’s Christmas tradition has continued almost unbroken since the 14th century -- nearly 700 years. The declaration has been issued from its current location, the balcony of Brinkkala House, since 1886 and the format for today’s observance has been in place since 1903.

However there have been other occasions when the event did not take place. For example, it was put off during 1712 and 1721, a period of war and upheaval in Europe.

It was also put on the back burner between 1809 and 1815. It was called off in 1917 because of a militia strike and in 1939 because of wartime air raids.

The ceremony has been broadcast on radio since 1935 and television broadcasts began in 1983, extending to Sweden in 1986. Nowadays, people from around the world follow the Christmas Eve event live online.

In a bygone era, the declaration also carried legal force, as anyone caught engaging in disorderly behaviour could be convicted of violating public order laws during that time.

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