Wednesday, 25 December 2013

The Finnish Festive Spirit

There are some things I feel that, as a foreigner, I will never quite understand about Finland and the Finns.

One of those is the Finnish Christmas spirit.

You see, in the UK where I live, Christmas is all about jollity. In many cases it's pretend-jollity (after all, who aside from my mother can really be jolly when eating Brussels sprouts?) but nonetheless Christmas and jollity go together like reindeers and mash potatoes Santa.

In Finland, Christmas, as I have experienced it, is a more subdued affair.

Nothing could illustrate this more than the online Christmas radio station JouluRadio (

While UK radio stations, in the run up to Christmas, play the usual fare of cheesy pop songs, from Slade's "Merry Christmas Everybody" to the Mariah Carey's "All I Want For Christmas Is You", JouluRadio broadcasts traditional downbeat Finnish songs to help the Finns get into their own version of the festive spirit.

I don't speak enough Finnish to really understand the lyrics of those songs, but the melodies alone are enough make me feel quite depressed: slow paced, mostly in a minor key, no bells, no amateurish children's choirs... Where's the fun?

Finns get to experience the whole package though, with lyrics dealing with festive subjects such as:

  • How life is doesn't last long, and while it does, it's dull (Hei tonttu-ukot hyppikää)
  • A woman giving a bird a little food for her dead brother in Heaven (Varpunen jouluaamuna)
  • How miserable Christmas is away from home (Sylvian joululaulu)
  • A boy who lays a candle on his mother's grave (Konsta Jylhän joululaulu)

A Finn tried to explain to me that these songs reflect the Finnish Christmas spirit and, in fact, are neither sad, melancholic nor depressing. Apparently, it's difficult to translate the feeling into English (well, clearly!), but this Finnish festive spirit is a kind of quiet happiness mixed with gratefulness. The Finnish word that was suggested to me was "harras", which seems to translate into devout, heartfelt, devoted, dedicated, deep, earnest, devotional, fond, and committed... Take your pick.

Honestly, I am none the wiser, but it could be because I, like my fellow English speakers, don't really mix sadness with happiness. We are either happy or sad. We do have a concept of being happy about other people's misfortune, but we had to borrow that from the Germans (Schadenfreude).

For the Finns though, it would seem that happiness and sadness are completely compatible. And Christmas is perfect time to express that sad happiness. Hence the Christmas songs about the dullness of life and dead brothers.

Not sure I will ever understand that, though I can state unequivocally that I have enjoyed every Christmas I have spent in Finland despite that. And frankly, that's all that matters.


  1. Ha! Funny! I actually have just been thinking lately that it IS possible to feel happy and sad at the same time because I've recently experienced it. I don't really listen to Christmas songs in Finnish, though.

  2. Almost all the Finnish songs sound sad. But they aren't just sad, there's usually also hope hidden in them.

    Topelius, who wrote "Varpunen jouluaamuna", was missing his son who had died when he was only one year old. So, in his song miracles happen during Christmas. The bird comes to tell the girl that everything is Ok, and her brother is fine in heaven. No need to be so sad.

    "Sylvian joulaulu" is also written by Topelius. It tells about an Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), who is in Italy. The bird misses Finland because its spouse is captured in a cage. It's used as a decoy; after capture, its eyes are blinded and its painful chirping lures other birds to the same trap. Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian empire back then, so maybe he wanted to tell, that even if Finland is trapped in a "cage", Finland is still really lucky because it's more free than that unfortunate bird. There are other theories as well.

    "Konsta Jylhän joululaulu", there are times when you're sad, really sad, but you will see that you will eventually survive + Christmas magic.

  3. About your translation of "harras". Try "solemn" and see if everything makes more sense...

  4. "Harras" is more than solemn. It has a sense of being spiritually elevated by beauty and peace, so "heartfelt" and "deep" are generally closer. Only as a direct attribute to Christian concepts is "devout" a good translation ("devout Christian", "devout prayer"/"solemn prayer").

    Also, the part about life being short and miserable in Hei tonttu-ukot hyppikää is meant humorously; why is this such a hard concept for foreigners? It's like "Eat, drink and be merry...", just an excuse for revelry!