It’s hard to believe there is only three more sleeps to Christmas Eve! Christmas for me evokes memories of snow, of dark, cold, wintery nights. Daylight only lasts for four hours. The ground is blanketed in a thick covering of snow. How I miss it this time of the year! Just one day of snow – preferably Christmas Eve – would be awesome. This year we are in for a roasting 39C. Somehow it’s not quite the same.
I remember one year my family built me a real igloo for a playhouse right in our front yard. It was awesome! There was a kitchen, a dining area and a bedroom. All the furniture and everything inside was made of compacted snow hardened with water to turn it into ice. All winter I had the pleasure of playing in it and inviting family and friends to visit. Lying in the powdery snow making snow angels was fun too. Testing to see if your tongue really sticks to the metal on the gate was not. It did. There was blood. And Mum had to bring out the warm water so it could be eased off without losing all the skin! I only did it once. If I remember right it was my brother who told me it wouldn’t stick and I should test it out for myself.
A Christmas Eve tradition in Finland is for families to visit the cemetery. Hundreds of softly glowing candles adorn each grave. If any were left without, someone would also make sure they too had candles. Sparkling in the white of the snow blanketing the landscape, it looks beautiful, serene. It is a remembrance and a tribute to those who are no longer with us.
Back at home scrumptious smells filled the house as Mum busied herself baking traditional biscuits, breads and other goodies. Christmas Eve was filled with an unbearable excitement. It was finally here! The day we had been looking forward to all year. A year that as a child seemed to drag on forever. The last window in the Advent calendar had been opened. It was a picture of the Baby Jesus in a manger. It was His birthday after all. Back then advent calendars did not contain chocolates. Instead each window revealed a Christmas related picture.
Early Christmas Eve we went out with Dad to get the Christmas fir tree. Yet another tradition that served to underline that it really was Christmas now. Once safely stowed in its base, we helped decorate it with gingerbread cookies, sweets and real candles. A Christmas sauna made sure everyone was squeaky clean.
Celebrations always began with the family attending a Christmas Eve church service. It was so hard to sit still. Finally it was time to go home. The house was warm, filled with the aromas of Christmas. Tablecloths, decorations and candles gave a magical festive touch. The table had been set with the best crockery.
Everything was in readiness. Quietly we sat at table while Dad read the Christmas story from the New Testament and prayers were said. Everyone joined in saying grace. In our family grace was said before every meal, not just at Christmas. Then it was time to eat. Hungry stomachs were soon filled with all manner of delicious food. There was baked ham and homemade mustard. Cranberry sauce and gravy with the Christmas casseroles – sweetened mash potato, rice and carrot, liver and rice, turnips. Rosolli too. A salad treat of boiled beetroot, carrot and potato with apple, onion and herring were all chopped up into bite size pieces. I wasn’t too keen on the herring back then. I love it now. Desert of creamed rice containing one blanched almond for a year of good luck to whoever was lucky enough to get it finished the meal. Smothered in hot fruit soup made of prunes, sultanas and dried apples, it was delicious. The coffee table too was laden with home-made biscuits, cakes, sweet yeast buns. Christmas Star biscuits were a special treat made from puff pastry and filled with a puree of prunes. Warmed and dusted with icing sugar they too were delicious. They were all for later. Usually the day after for us kids. Once bellies were filled, the table was cleared. And excitement mounted to feverpitch. Joulupukki would be arriving soon!
The highlight of the day always of course was when Joulupukki (Santa Claus) arrived bearing his sack of gifts. It was always one of the neighbours dressed up. I spotted him one year as I peeked over the fence. I knew who it was. Not that I cared. I was far too excited and wanted to show off my brand new patent leather shoes. They were my special party shoes and I was so proud of them. It was the first time I had been allowed to wear them. Knowing who Joulupukki was paled into insignificance in comparison.
Joulupukki was welcomed with Christmas carols about Santa and his elves. Mum had a beautiful singing voice. She led the family chorus as Joulupukki came and again as he left. We tagged along as best we could. Gifts were exchanged. Money was tight. Dad, as a carpenter, was often without work in winter. One each, the gifts were modest and thoughtful. I was too little to have any pocket money to spend. I used to wrap up exciting things like old socks and underpants as my gifts to the family. It laid a wonderful foundation of tradition and a deep sense of the true meaning of Christmas. No extravagance. No commercial hype. Family togetherness and Love.
If Christmas is a time of celebration for you, may you too experience what it is really about – Gifting from the Heart without the hype.
© Raili Tanska