Finnish Christmas traditions persevere in NYM
News | Published on January 4, 2023 at 1:31pm GMT+0000 | Author: Tucker Henderson0
Snow covered evergreens, frigid temperatures, and early sunsets mark the Christmas season in Minnesota this year, but both climate and scenery seem to mirror that of Finland’s countryside. It’s no wonder so many Finnish immigrants settled in this area of the United States.
There are several Finnish Christmas traditions that have passed the test of time and still remain in practice among the Finnish-American community in this area.
A simple tradition that was started at Woodland Cemetery south of New York Mills in 1984 has become a large annual event for many on Christmas Eve.
The tradition started with an interest in genealogy for Bev Hagel. She had asked her aunts and uncles for their own accounts of their lives and remembrances.
“One aunt gave me two letters that were between 20 and 30 years old,” said Hagel. “When my grandfather had died, she had written to Finland and told them he had passed. Both of them answered, but no one had picked up the conversation from there.”
Hagel decided to try and reach out to those old addresses and see if there were any relatives that would write back. Sure enough, two grandsons of the original letter writers responded to Hagel’s letters. A pen-pal friendship began and soon, culture and history was exchanged. A picture of a Finnish cemetery all lit up with candles was sent to Hagel and her interest was piqued.
“I asked what was the purpose of that,” said Hagel. “They said it was to remember loved ones. I thought that was a neat idea.”
Hagel decided in 1984 that this was a tradition that she wanted to start with her husband Don and family. Her mother had passed away the year before and their neighbor’s son, Craig Tumberg, had recently passed away from leukemia.
“The first year, it was just the two of us,” she said. “We put it on our parents and Tumbergs put it on Craig’s grave. We went through heavy snow, cold wind chills, we had to walk from the road because nobody plowed it. Sometimes we used to take boards if the snow was too deep so they wouldn’t sink into the snow.”
Hagel had purchased special lanterns while on a visit to Finland for use at the cemetery back home. She was never able to find candles that fit, so she used her Finngenuity and came up with her own homemade luminaries.
“We had glass jars to begin with, but they would break and cause problems,” said Hagel. “The best thing I found was just a clear plastic milk carton. Cut a hole in there, put some cat litter on the bottom, and put in a candle. It glows because they’re clear.”
Hagel commented on how much the tradition has grown around the area and how large of a variety of luminaries can be seen on Christmas Eve. She remembers that at most, she put out 16 luminaries. Nowadays, there are hundreds that light the cemetery.
“Some people put out electric lights that stay on all night,” she said. “There’s all kinds of them. Some have really fancy ones and others just bring a jar out every year.”
Although the Hagels no longer make the trek out to the cemetery to put out luminaries anymore, their legacy of the tradition can be seen in full force each Christmas Eve as hundreds of luminaries glow in the moonlight, honoring the loved ones in Woodland and other local cemeteries as others adopt the tradition into their own families.
The late Katrine (Keranen) Savoie adopted the tradition in 1994 as she was adamant about starting the tradition in the Keranen family after her experiences teaching in Finland.
“When Katrine went to teach school there in 1993,” said Savoie’s mother Gen Keranen, “she came home in 1994 and said ‘this is what they did in Finland—they went to church, then they went to the cemetery and put out luminaries, then they went to the relatives and had sauna, and then they ate.”
Keranen said that Finns always had a sauna on Christmas Eve before partaking in the traditional foods of a Christmas supper, those of rutabaga hot dish, rice pudding, and fish.
“When Katrine came back from Finland, we started (putting out luminaries),” said Keranen. “You go out to Woodland on Christmas Eve and it is full of candles.”
In the earlier years, the traditional luminaries were made with an ice cream bucket filled with water and a candle would be placed in a cavity in the ice to protect it from the wind. These days, it can be easier to rely on technology than some of the older ways.
“I’ve gone to battery-operated candles. They at least last all night,” said Keranen, explaining the difficulty of the traditional ice luminaries. “You could never be sure with the wind or the snow if it would blow the candles out. Some people still use the ice cream bucket with the candle in it and some people use solar ones, so there’s quite a variety.”
The tradition has grown exponentially in the past few decades as families adopt the idea for their own family plots. Some families shovel their family plots, some simply wipe off the stone monuments to read their loved one’s name. Since Christmas Eve is always a cold day, families might not stay more than a few minutes at the cemetery before traveling home for the evening.
“It depends upon the weather,” explained Keranen. “We might take about five minutes, not much longer than that. We say a little prayer and then head home, leave them glowing all night long. It is quite a meaningful tradition,” said Keranen. “We’ve been doing it ever since 1994, it’s really a beautiful sight.”
Although the local tradition is only 38 years old, the meaning behind it is not lost on anyone, especially those who started it those many Christmases ago.
“For many years we were alone,” reminisced Hagel. “ From there it has grown.”
Each Christmas Eve, the story of Christmas is recounted from the Biblical pages of Luke at the Apostolic Lutheran Church in NY Mills. A unique tradition in the Apostolic church, however, is the retelling of the story in Finnish by Pastor Andy Tumberg. During the same time, the congregations started the tradition of singing Silent Night in both English and in Finnish.
Tumberg has been telling the Christmas story in Finnish from the same pulpit for 36 years, having begun in 1986. He started reading it straight out of his own Finnish Bible, which shows a lot of wear from countless hours of reading over the years. He mentioned that in more recent years, he has been reading from a Bible that has some familial connection.
“This Bible I’ve been reading it from was my cousin Sylvia Keskitalo’s,” said Tumberg. “This Bible was on a table in Sylvia’s room when she was a resident at the nursing home. It’s a beautiful Bible.”
After admiring the Bible, Tumberg asked Keskitalo if he could have the Bible after she was no longer in need of it. Sure enough, in 2006 when Keskitalo passed away, she had told her family to give it to Tumberg.
“Since then, I’ve been reading the Christmas story from that Bible,” said Tumberg.
Tumberg’s wife, Janet, mentioned that there is another part of each service that is Finnish that many may not notice anymore. She explained that there is an acronym spelled out on the front of the pulpit at the church which reads “A.L.S.K.”
“Those letters on the pulpit, they are in Finnish,” explained Janet. “It stands for ‘Apostolis Luterilainen Seurakunnan Kirkko’ which means ‘Apostolic Lutheran Congregation’s Church.’”
Andy said it was important to try and keep the Finnish heritage alive and these Finnish traditions are his contribution to that.
“We’re trying to hang on to the Finnish heritage,” he said. “That’s one of the main things. Even people that don’t understand Finnish, they like it when I read it.”
At Trinity Lutheran Church, during the Sunday prior to Christmas, a Finnish rendition of Silent Night can be heard by all at the Sunday school children’s program.
Greg Esala leads the children in a Finnish verse of Silent Night and Gary Bach leads them in a verse in German.
“I’ve been singing it since I was in Sunday school myself,” said Esala. “More of the kids sang it then than they do now.”
Esala grew up with parents that both spoke fluent Finnish. His father, Rev. Toivo Esala, preached sermons in both English and in Finnish.
“I speak some Finnish, but not fluently,” said Esala. “Enough to get by or get into trouble.”
Esala mentioned that he had a small assortment of Finnish songs that he sings for funerals around the area. He noted that he had a lot of help from his father and mother while they were living to make sure his pronunciation was correct in the verses that he would be singing.
“I would sing some various songs,” said Esala. “I have a small repertoire of Finnish songs that I know the pronunciations of and I will sing some verses.”
The importance of Esala’s Finnish heritage comes from his parents and especially his father’s legacy of both Finnish and English ministry.
“Originally, there were Finnish services held at numerous churches around the area,” explained Esala. “My father, being a pastor, would preach a sermon in English and then there would be a Finnish service and he would preach the Christmas message in Finnish as well. That’s where I picked up most of what I know–from my father and my mother.”
While Esala continues to keep the Finnish heritage alive at Trinity, he noted that there are becoming less and less who can understand the language.
“I always say, it seems each year there are fewer people able to critique my Finn in the crowd as everybody is getting older and older and leaving us as well,” he said.