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 (www.jouluradio.fi).
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.