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Lye-soaked fish and other Finnish Christmas oddities

As many newcomers to the country may have noticed, Finns manage to bring their own distinctive twist – and flavor – to festivities celebrated elsewhere in the world. Christmas is no different. Yle News takes a look at a selection of Finland’s treasured seasonal traditions.

Rovaniemi Joulupukki
Image: Jarno Ranta / Yle

When it comes to Christmas, Finland can claim to have it all. Magical winter landscapes, heart-warming family traditions and Santa Claus, the patron saint of the modern day holiday. But there's also a quirky side to Christmas in Finland that's all about quaint practices, mind- and gut-wrenching delicacies and seemingly oddball  customs.

I saw Mommy kissing Santa Claus

Technically, this is a scenario that could play out at any pikkujoulu in Finland. Pikkujoulu is the name given to the Finnish office Christmas party, when in theory at least, co-workers can take advantage of a more relaxed setting and atmosphere to throw off the everyday formality of the workplace and get to know each other a bit better. The festivities get rolling during the dark and dreary month of November, when everyone is looking forward to some kind of diversion anyway.

Sometimes pikkujoulu can be a jolly affair when everyone can let their hair down – and in cases where participants may over-indulge in the hard stuff, it becomes an occasion that everyone tacitly agrees to forget. On other occasions it’s merely another forum in which to awkwardly avoid closer interaction with others. But there is a good side to the season, restaurants and taxi services can expect to turn a tidy profit off the obligatory staff get-together.

Santa Lucia: Girl on fire

Imagine a young woman with flowing tresses, balancing a crown of candles with live fire on her head. Sounds like a recipe for disaster? It’s actually what the Nordic interpretation of St. Lucy or Santa Lucia looked like until very recently. Like other Nordic countries, Finland celebrates St. Lucy’s Day or Santa Lucia, once associated with the winter solstice or the shortest day of the year.

In these northern climes, the winter solstice heralds the return of longed-for longer and lighter days. Finns and their neighbours observe Santa Lucia’s day on December 13. The saint is represented as a young woman clad in white wearing a crown of candles – nowadays of the non-flammable variety, fortunately.

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas – please!

It would appear that back in the 13th century the common folk in Sweden and Finland were generally so rowdy that one functionary known as Birger Jarl found it necessary to introduce legislation to encourage citizens to behave like worthy members of the Swedish empire during the holiday. Thus was born the enduring tradition of "Declaring the Christmas Peace", a practice that with some exceptions to accommodate war and other affairs of state, continued virtually uninterrupted to the present day.

Although the declaration is made in many parts of the country, ground zero for this rare display of Finnish pomp and ceremony is indisputably the old Market Square in Turku, once the Finnish capital. Nowadays the declaration is read out at noon on Christmas Eve from a parchment dating back to 1827. The Christmas Peace was considered so sacred and inviolable, that punishments meted out for wrongdoing during Christmas were considerably harsher than at any other time of the year – law enforcement, take note.

Christmas food – not for the faint of heart

Every country where Christmas is celebrated brings its own local flavours to the holiday table and Finland is no different. From steaming carbohydrate-packed casseroles featuring swede, potato or carrots, to the festive-looking salad rossoli, Finnish holiday fare can be a treat. But Finns and their Nordic neighbours serve up a unique fish dish that takes the cake when it comes to novelty – and just plain Finnish "sisu" – or internal fortitude. Dubbed lipeäkala (lutefisk in Swedish) the dish is made from aged stockfish or whitefish soaked in lye, better known as sodium hydroxide or caustic soda.

Put aside for a moment the fact that caustic soda is highly corrosive and used as drain cleaner or in industrial processes for the manufacture of paper as well as textiles.  Finns make the lye-soaked fish edible by soaking it in cold water for four to six days before preparing it for the table. Maverick chefs looking to take on this kitchen challenge are advised to carefully follow prescribed cooking instructions. And whatever you do, don’t break out the silver cutlery, which will be ruined by coming into contact with the fish – stick to the cheap and replaceable stainless steel stuff.

Santa for hire

Christmas is a time of year that stresses the bank account of even the most frugal among us. If you’re looking to top up your emaciated savings, why not impersonate Santa for a few hours? Since Santa himself is Finnish after all, his compatriots are happy to help him fulfill his seasonal commitments by turning up to dispense seasonal largesse to wide-eyed believers – for a fee of course.

Santa’s "helpers" still ply their trade in villages as well as large cities, and often reprise their roles from year to year at the behest of friends and family members. It’s not yet clear however, how the government’s efforts to stamp out the informal economy and its evils – undeclared hard cash transactions that do not involve receipts and deprive the government of its tax take – have been affecting the time-honoured and noble tradition.

Do you hear what I hear?

That’s right; it’s the click and whirr of electronic cash registers racking up the numbers as consumers fall over themselves to take advantage of seasonal sales. With the holiday formalities out of the way and tax refunds burning their pockets, shoppers usually can’t wait to take advantage of discounted prices on everything from winter gear to furniture and home electronics. It’s a win-win situation, as retailers also can’t wait to relieve the public of their hard-earned cash.

This year merchants tried to get a head start on the annual sales frenzy in an effort to boost their bottom lines, otherwise depressed by the gloomy economic situation. But they needn’t have panicked – experts in markets and buyer behavior have predicted that many in Finland will be resorting to a heavy dose of retail therapy to treat the country’s ongoing economic blues.

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