For better or worse, you can’t spend Christmas in Finland without sampling a traditional Finnish Christmas table (joulupöytä). Including oven-baked ham, dry-cured salmon, cold beetroot salad and more root vegetable casseroles than you’ll know what to do with, Finns enjoy their Christmas meal on 24 December.
But it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Finns started celebrating Christmas. They used to celebrate kekri, a pagan festival which marked the end of the harvest season, in November.
Christmas traditions with roots in kekri
Kekri, which was regarded as the last opportunity for Finns to eat fresh food before the following spring, was a harvest festival of sorts that combined what we now think of as Christmas and New Year’s celebrations. It involved a big feast, lots of drinking and one guest dressing up as a "kekri buck", a goat-like animal that represented the god of cattle and fertility and roamed the village, knocking on doors and asking for offerings. Think of it as a sort of bovine trick-or-treater.
Although kekri is no longer widely celebrated, Suomenlinna in Helsinki still hosts an annual kekri celebration, complete with a candle-light concert, beer tasting workshops and a buck burning ceremony.
"Kekri took place after the harvest had been reaped and the slaughter had been done," Head of Museum Operations at Jyväskylä University Museum Pirjo Vuorinen tells Yle News. "It was a time when people had a lot of food and could afford to eat well."
One of the Christmas foods that comes from kekri is the traditional centrepiece of the Finnish Christmas table: oven-baked ham.
"Farmers would feed up one of their pigs before the celebration," explains Vuorinen
Ham is still a big part of the festivities, with 75 per cent of Finns saying that it belongs on the Christmas table, according to a survey by Finland’s second largest grocery retailer K-Group.
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"Finnish Christmas foods come from the resources that Finns were traditionally surrounded by," the museum curator adds. As well as root vegetables, this includes fish.
"Finns eat fish all year round, because Finland is full of lakes and surrounded by sea, but they’ve always tried to catch a more special fish for Christmas. In the north of Finland, this is often salmon, which is then salted."
Thankfully lye fish, a gelatinous dish which is prepared by soaking reconstituted stock fish in a solution of lye, is no longer a standard part of the Finnish Christmas table.
The aroma is a cross between a gym bag and a pigsty, and the consistency is soft, squishy and decidedly un-fish-like.
Some connoisseurs claim it’s okay if you can get past the smell, but these days fewer people are venturing that far.
"The popularity of lye fish has fallen to one third of what it was," senior archivist at the Finnish Literature Society (SKS) Juha Nirkko tells Yle News, citing a survey by a supermarket chain.
"The Christmas boxes"
The pureed potato, carrot and swede casseroles that often flummox foreigners and are pretty much indistinguishable from baby food—known as the ‘Christmas boxes’—have their roots in kekri too. They were easy to make because root vegetables were available in Finland in November.
"The vegetable casseroles originally come from south-west Finland," notes Nirkko.
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Nowadays many Finns opt to buy their Christmas boxes ready-made, with beetroot and sweet potato casseroles becoming almost as popular as the traditional ones, according to K-Group.
But one box has been dropped from the menu.
"Liver casserole, which used to be eaten at kekri, isn’t eaten at Christmas anymore," Nirkko explains.
Rice porridge and the lucky almond
After watching the Declaration of Christmas Peace, a tradition since the 1300s, Finnish families sit down for their Christmas porridge.
"For a long time, Christmas porridge was made with Finnish barley," Nirkko says. "The porridge can be cooked on the stove or baked in the oven."
"Just as the Romans used to hide a lucky bean in their food, Finns hid an almond in their Christmas porridge," says Nirkko. "It brought luck to whoever ate it."
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Nowadays Finns tend to make their porridge with rice instead of barley.
"Rice came to Finland in the 1800s," Vuorinen adds. "It was around then that Finns started adding cold raisin fruit soup (rusinakiisseli) to their porridge too."
After finishing their kekri feast, it was traditional to leave out any leftover food and keep the sauna warm overnight. “This was an offering to the spirits and ancestors,” Nirkko says. “It was customary to make enough Christmas porridge for the spirits of the home and the animals of the forest too.”
Sweet treats and home-brewed beer
Finns have always enjoyed sweet foods at Christmas, including pinwheel-shaped tarts that contain prune jam and were accused of looking like swastikas by the Swedish press in 2013.
"The first recipe for these Christmas tarts comes from Swedish author Cajsa Warg’s famous 1755 cookbook [Guide to Housekeeping for Young Women], but their exact origin is unknown," Nirkko explains.
Gingerbread biscuits are also a big part of Christmas in Finland.
"Gingerbread was bought to Turku in the 1600s," says Nirkko. "It was based on honey cake, which came from the pharaohs of Egypt. Gingerbread first became popular in European monasteries, eventually becoming popular with the general public… After a while, sugar replaced the honey."
Anyone who has spent time in Finland won’t be surprised to hear that alcohol plays a huge role in Christmas here, with state alcohol monopoly Alko seeing their sales double in the festive season. “At Christmas we sell almost four times the amount of sparkling wine and champagne that we normally sell, Alko’s Products and Services Educator Anri Lindström told Yle News.
But before the 1800s, Finns used to brew their own alcohol.
"In the days of kekri, Finns used the wheat they had harvested to make home-brewed beer," Vuorinen explains.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the tendency to overeat.
"At kekri, people ate throughout the day," Vuorinen said. "And at Christmas we still make a huge quantity of food and eat far too much."
So, what are you waiting for? Pile up your plate with mushed up vegetables and pickled fish and… tuck in?
If you want to try making some traditional Finnish Christmas foods for yourself, you can find lots of recipes here. Good luck!