Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Christmas Goat

I can’t let Christmas pass by without a few words about Santa Claus.  Among Americans, there is a common misconception – at least as Finns would see it – that Santa resides at the North Pole.  Everyone in this country, however, knows the real story:  Saint Nicholas in fact lives in Finnish Lapland, and always has.  He makes his home at Korvatunturi, a remote fell (rounded, treeless mountain) that is close to the Russian border and not much else.  Deep in one of Finland’s largest national parks, with few roads nearby, Korvatunturi gives Santa the extreme privacy that, at least for eleven months out of the year, he obviously craves. 

The Finnish name for Santa is “joulupukki”, which if translated literally means “Christmas Goat”, or more precisely “Yule Goat” after the Nordic pagan holiday of Yule.  In keeping with his pagan background, joulupukki started off being much more naughty than nice.  The original joulupukki was an old man dressing as a goat, complete with horns, who went house to house demanding gifts and leftovers from the Yule feast.  Nowadays people might actually welcome someone taking all that excess ham and turkey off their hands after a bit of over-indulgent Christmas feasting. 

File:Santaandgoat.gifLike so many pagan customs, Yule and the goat that came to symbolize it were eventually absorbed -- or looking at it another way co-opted -- by Christianity to create the present-day celebration of a child born in the Middle East at a time when Finland had barely emerged from the Bronze Age.  Along the way, the Finnish joulupukki was transformed from a cantankerous goat-man into the familiar bearded, jolly old elf who today brings joy to children and retailers around the world. 

While Finns have happily adopted the American-style Santa, there are still differences in his modus operandi.  I don’t know what the practice is today in the States, but when I was a kid, we never saw Santa except in a department store, and only rarely then.  Santa visited our house in the dead of the night on Christmas Eve, deposited his presents under the tree while the whole household (or so we thought) was fast asleep, and left without a trace.  The secrecy of it only seemed to add to the magic of the whole enterprise. 

In Finland, most children come face to face with the old goat himself.  Maybe it helps that the journey from Korvatunturi is so short that when Santa drops by on Christmas Eve it's still well before bedtime, in fact, often soon after the Christmas dinner has just ended.  Funny how that works.

Joulupukki's visit is great theater for little kids, who excitedly wait for the jingle of a bell announcing his arrival, and are awe-struck when he comes through the door.  It’s also a good source of seasonal income for enterprising folks with the right costume, a flair for amateur acting, and a deep, jolly voice.  Not only does Santa simply carry in the bags of wrapped gifts, he also sits for a few minutes chatting with the children, who often treat him to a song or two.  Before he sets off again, he’s also sometimes treated to a toast by the father of the house, usually in the form of a “snaps” of vodka.  The obvious problem with this custom becomes apparent if a Santa is feted with a toast at each stop on his appointed rounds through the neighborhood so that over the course of the evening he gets jollier and jollier -- even to the point that it impairs his credibility as Santa.  Or his ability to drive.

Despite the unshakable certainty in the minds of Finns that Santa is a local boy, there are other claims to the contrary.  Norway and Sweden (which, with Finland and Russia, occupy parts of Lapland, the natural habitat of reindeer) also claim to be the natural habitat of Santa.  I think, however, that Finland has won the battle for world opinion.  Thanks to persistent marketing, or to the fact that Finland has the much stronger claim, many people around the world have come to believe Santa is a Finn. 

It is said that every year some 600,000 admirers in 150 countries send letters to Finland, addressed to Santa.  They are delivered to the small city of Rovaniemi, on the Arctic Circle, around which a local Christmas-themed cottage industry has sprung up, including Santa Claus Village and a special Santa Claus Post Office.  These attractions are completely dedicated to promoting the modern, heartwarming, and commercialized Santa, combined with the natural allure of exotic Lapland.

Rovaniemi isn’t really that close to joulupukki's traditional hideout, but it is in Lapland and, unlike Korvatunturi, it benefits from having an airstrip long enough to accommodate aircraft bigger than a reindeer-drawn sleigh.  Every December, charter flights from Britain and most other large western European countries arrive with planeloads of Santa tourists.  Back when the Concorde was still flying, British Airways used them to ferry UK tourist in and out of Rovaniemi on 8-hour visits to the land of Santa Claus. 

They might reconsider such trips after watching a new Finnish movie called “Rare Exports”.  The film, which certainly appeals to the quirky and somewhat dark sense of humor that Finns sometimes display, draws on the original myth of the Finnish joulupukki to tell a suspenseful tale about life in Santa’s home turf.  Watch it with care.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Today is one of the days I most look forward to during the year, in a perverse sort of way.  The Winter Solstice is when those of us on the northern half of the globe, get to enjoy – if you can use that word – the shortest day of the year.

Now, while this is true for anyone living north of the tropics, the Winter Solstice takes on a much greater significance the closer you get to the North Pole.  Sure, even in Florida or Los Angeles the sun will not hang in the sky today quite as long as it did yesterday, but who would ever notice?  It’s only up here in the far north that the true meaning of the solstice becomes so painfully clear.

Location does matter.  The further north you travel, the shorter the winter days become until, way past the Arctic Circle, the whole concept of “day” becomes moot.  Up there, for a couple of months, there isn’t any such a thing as “day”.

Luckily, here in Helsinki, about 700 kilometers (440 miles) below the Arctic Circle, we still have some hope of sunshine even on the shortest day of the year.  Theoretically, the sun rose this morning at 9:24 and will set less than six hours later at 15:24.  We’ll have to take the astronomers’ word for this, since we live under a semi-permanent cover of gray clouds that doesn’t allow us even the smallest glimpse of the sun.  What we are likely to get today is varying shades of gray light for a few hours before total darkness creeps in again.  Unfortunately – and especially so for those of us born in sunnier climes – these gray days are not exceptional.

Once in Georgia, after I had moved back there in the late 80s to study journalism, we had a spell of cloudy weather that lasted more than two days.  On the third day of completely overcast skies, my friends were about to pull their hair out, asking "Where is the sun?”  I couldn’t help but laugh and say:  “This is nothing.  This is nothing.”  It’s true:  here in Finland you can easily go two weeks without the sun ever penetrating the soup of clouds overhead.

An oddity about the solstice in Finland is that it often arrives a day later than it appears on American calendars, due to the time difference.  It seems that the exact moment the North Pole is pointed the farthest away from the sun (in other words, the solstice) occurred this year in the wee hours of this morning Finnish time, when it was still December 21st back in the States.   Who knew astronomy could be so complicated?

While I can’t claim to know that much about the stars, I do like looking up at them now and then.  That’s not something you can often do in Finland, and it’s something I especially miss about living in the States.

When they were small, our kids had the chance to enjoy a couple of classic summer activities on our yearly visits to my parents, activities that were denied them in Finland.  One was running around in the pasture trying to catch “lightning bugs” (fireflies).  The other was stretching out flat on our backs on my parents’ driveway, gazing at a sky full of stars like they never had seen before.  Sprawling side by side on concrete that was still warm from the heat of the day, we would take in the entire spectacle of the Milky Way, the constellations, the planets, the occasional meteor streaking overhead. 

Here in Finland, in summer (the flip-side of the dark winters), it’s never dark enough to see stars.  The most you get, even at midnight, is a bit of twilight.  And in winter, when it is undeniably dark enough to see stars, it’s either too cloudy or too cold.  Try standing in knee-deep snow, craning your neck at the heavens in -20 C weather and see how long it takes before you decide instead to go inside and marvel at the cosmos on the Discovery Channel. 

It’s this lack of sun and sky, and not the frigid climate, that has always been the part of the Finnish winter hardest for me to adjust to.  While winters here are cold, it’s not always as cold as you might think.  On any given winter day, it can even be warmer in Helsinki than in my hometown in the north Georgia mountains.  It does sometimes happen.  I can easily put up with the cold weather here – it’s the darkness that can sometimes be hard to take.  That’s why I get some perverse pleasure when the shortest and darkest day of the year finally arrives.  From here on, it’s all downhill.  Beginning tomorrow, the days start getting longer. 

Monday, December 20, 2010


My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this past weekend.  It’s an important milestone, if for no other reason than it reminds us how long and rich our life has been together.  But to be honest, we haven’t often paid much attention to our anniversary. 

It’s not that we’re unhappy with our marriage – far from it.  It’s more that, when we paid a visit to the courthouse in Valdosta, Georgia, on that day 25 Decembers ago, it was a wedding of convenience, a kind of formality.  By that time, we had been living together in Finland for three years, cohabitating, if you will.  Some would perhaps say "shacking up".  And we had no special desire to change that situation. 

But as it happened, during a Christmas-time visit to the States, we started thinking about making honest people of each other.  The idea took root on the long drive back to Georgia from a camping trip in Big Bend National Park, on the border with Mexico. 

(Big Bend, by the way, is a great place to visit in winter – warm during the day, dramatic desert scenery, and not many people when we were there back in 1985.  In that more innocent age, there was even a spot on the Rio Grande across where you could pay a Mexican a dollar to row you across the river for a visit to an incredibly isolated village.  I suspect that’s not the case anymore.)

As we were driving back east across Texas, with a winter storm close on our heels, it occurred to us that a marriage license would come in handy if my (then future) wife wanted to apply for a green card.  As we toyed with the idea, we also realized that marrying a foreigner would be easier to arrange in the States than in more bureaucratic Finland. 

When we made it to Valdosta, where we were to spend a couple of days with my sister, we got hitched at an almost Las Vegas speed.  We had to wait only one day (for the results of our blood tests to affirm that neither of us was suffering from venereal disease) before showing up at the Lowndes County courthouse, where the Justice of the Peace, in the presence of my sister, pronounced us man and wife.  Then, freshly wed, we promptly drove out to the Okefenokee Swamp for a day of canoeing over black water trying spot alligators (it was too cold for them to show themselves).  We’ve always referred to this as our “honeymoon”. 

When I’ve described the glib approach we took to our “wedding”, some friends have been a bit horrified about now “unromantic” it sounds.  In a way, I suppose they’re right, but it didn’t matter to us.  (More importantly, it didn’t matter to my wife – I’m a lucky man that way.) 

By the time we got married we were already completely devoted and committed to each other.  To us, the ten-minute ceremony at the courthouse was just a formality.  And I still feel that way.  Without sounding too schmaltzy (or obvious) about it, I see our marriage as the life we’ve built together.  The marriage license, with its silhouette of a bride and groom right out of the 1950s and its official seal attesting to our “bond in holy matrimony”, is just a piece of paper. 

And yes, for so many of those legal necessities in life it is, of course, an important piece of paper.  I’m sure we would have eventually taken the step of getting married, and not only to smooth the path to legal residence in the States.  (It did help my wife jump through the hoops of obtaining a green card a few years later.) 

Our take-or-leave-it approach to official matrimony was not exactly groundbreaking.  I’m sure lots of married couples in America – maybe even in the pious South where I’m from – have lived together for some time before finally tying the knot.  But unless things have changed a lot in the last 30 years, there are huge pressures from society and family to keep such living arrangements under wraps.  Not to mention religious pressures. 

Finland, in keeping with its liberal Scandinavian tradition, has a much more relaxed and open attitude in these matters.  When I first came to live here, I was surprised how some long-time couples I knew had gotten married only when they started having kids, if they had bothered to get married at all.  The practice of delaying or forgoing marriage completely is still quite common today, with over 20% of families consisting of unmarried couples, including 18% of families with children.  One thing is certain:  there is no stigma attached here to couples cohabitating in a “common-law” marriage. 

A telling example is the current Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, who married her long-time partner only after winning the presidential election in 2000.  While she and her husband might not have been technically cohabitating (they were neighbors living in separate apartments), their 15-year relationship was a marriage in all but name and was completely public.  What’s more, Halonen has a grown daughter from a previous relationship that was never consecrated by marriage. 

It’s hard to imagine someone in the States being elected to the highest office in the land under those circumstances, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Finland who really cares. 

You may see this as either an enlightened attitude (I do) or an disturbing sign of moral decay, but most Finns don’t seem to give it much thought one way or the other.  I would like to think Finland’s more tolerate attitude toward marriage has resulted in divorce rates much lower than the often-quoted 50% rate in the US.  Sadly, that’s not the case.  The rate here is not much better, nor much worse.  When it comes to the regrettable tendency of some marriages to unravel while others endure, Finland and America have more in common than it might first appear.  

Thursday, December 9, 2010


During this past week, southern Finland has gotten a healthy heaping of snow, breaking a near-75-year record for this time of the year.  At our house we got a whopping 24 centimeters (9 inches) in one day, thankfully, all very dry powder, which made clearing it from the sidewalk and driveway fairly painless.  We have a full half-meter (foot and a half) of snow standing in our yard, so there’s no doubt we’ll have a white Christmas this year.  You might think that Helsinki, at the same latitude as Anchorage would never have to worry about something like that.  But you’d be wrong, at least in recent years. 

When I first came here in the early 80s the white stuff started falling around the end of November and wouldn’t melt until the end of March.  For almost four months, the mercury rarely got above freezing until – with the days rapidly growing longer – winter would finally break and the “big melt off” would begin.  Roads and sidewalks turned into broad swaths of sloppy (and very dirty) slush as the snow and ice melted to reveal a winter’s accumulation of road grime, assorted litter, and dog crap.  In our neighborhood, lots of dog crap.  And then after having to slosh through all that mess for about two weeks, it was over and spring started. 

That was then, the good old days.  In recent years, that cycle of snowing and melting has played out not just at the beginning and end of winter, but repeatedly throughout the season.  We might get a nice blanket of powdery snow, only to see temperatures rise two days later and the whole thing dissolve into a soup of deep slush during the day, which then freezes into treacherous icy terrain during the night.  When you suffer through several of these thaw-freeze cycles each winter, you quickly become nostalgic for the hard winters where it never got above freezing for months. 

These milder winters have gotten so bad that for three years in a row starting in 2006 Old Man Winter surprised us with the cheerless gift of a snowless Christmas.  I never thought that possible here.  Happily, the past two winters have switched back to the old style, with wintery scenery on December 25th worthy of Currier and Ives.  We had more than enough of snow last year, mountains of it, vast oceans of it in fact, that didn’t finally melt until mid-April. 

As you might expect, Finland is well equipped to handle all this snow, usually.  A typical winter experience here is waking to the sound of snowplows briskly scraping the streets and sidewalks clear of the previous night’s snowfall.  Sometimes that’s the first hint that it’s been snowing during the night.  Another typical experience is having to shovel a breach in the wall of snow at the end of your driveway left by the plow in its wake. 

In twenty-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned a thing or two about shoveling snow.  And driving in slippery weather.  Needless to say, these are not skills I brought with me from Georgia, though I did have some experience with snow growing up. 

While it’s true that Georgia is nestled in the warm, moist bosom of the South, I come from the mountainous, northern part of the state, where snow in the winter wasn’t exactly rare.  When I was a kid, we had a chance every winter to build snowmen, sled in our pasture, and make “snowcream”.  I wonder if anyone else made snowcream.  In the morning after a typical one-inch (2.5cm) snowfall (and usually after the welcome news that there would be no school that day), we’d scoop up a pan-full of fresh snow, add vanilla extract, sugar, and a bit of milk – voilĂ  “snowcream!” 

So, even in Georgia we knew how to have a good time in the snow.  Functioning normally, however, was another matter.  In 1982, when I was living in the college town of Athens, we had a storm that dumped maybe one inch of snow overnight.  The University of Georgia administration promptly closed the university.  For three days.  My future wife who as a seven-year-old in Finland had walked alone two and a half kilometers (1.5 miles) to school in temperatures of -30 degree (-22 F) couldn’t believe it. 

The university overreacted, to be sure, but there was a good reason to shut the school down for at least the first day:  many, maybe most, students drove to campus.  If you’ve watched young people with no experience with snow hell, for students from Florida hardly any experience even with frost trying to force their parent’s hand-me-down Pontiac up one of the hills in Athens on bald tires, you would agree that school officials were wise to do whatever they could to keep the kids off the streets.  What they couldn’t do, however, was prevent students with a unexpected day off from classes from looting lunch trays from the university cafeterias and turning them into pretty good substitutes for sleds.  They sure knew how to enjoy snow.  I even remember someone flying down the slippery slope of Baxter Hill in an aluminum canoe. 
Finns may know how to live with lots of snow, how to enjoy it, appreciate its beauty, even become blasĂ© about it or completely fed up with the stuff by April.  But, when it comes to being truly excited by the wonder of it, they can’t match the reckless joy of some lucky pre-law undergrad from Miami who, during his first ever encounter with a little snow, somehow gets his hands on a canoe.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Last Sunday, my family celebrated Thanksgiving, which we do every year to give our children, growing up here in Finland, some familiarity with American holiday traditions.  The actual holiday was three days earlier on Thursday, but since it’s just us — one of the few families in Finland observing it — I feel we can take some liberties and move this feast to suit our schedule. 

Our version of the holiday is, in any case, a kind of “slimmed down” Thanksgiving, though “slim” and “Thanksgiving” aren’t two words that naturally go together.  Since there are only five of us - and since it’s me who is doing the cooking — it’s not an extravagant spread that we sit down to.  Instead of a boulder-sized bird, we make do with a one-kilo turkey roll, normally served with corn (what could be more American than corn?), and substituting cranberry sauce with the lingonberry jelly typically found in the far north and in IKEA stores around the world. 

While slicing up our turkey roll, I’ve made the point over the years of telling the kids the story of the first Thanksgiving.  I explain how the holiday celebrates the bountiful harvest that the agriculturally challenged Pilgrims — with not a green thumb among them — were able to enjoy after the local Indians saved them from certain starvation by showing how to grow native crops like corn and beans. 

As I hope every schoolchild in the US still learns, the Pilgrims were religious dissidents from England who fled to the shores of America in 1620 to find the freedom to practice religion as they saw fit.  They were a Protestant separatist congregation that had long suffered persecution in England for their Puritan beliefs that the Church of England was not protestant enough, smacking too much as it did of Catholicism.  Only by starting a new life in faraway America, the Pilgrims felt, could they truly separate from the English church. 

I spent some time this summer in New England, not far from Plymouth, Massachusetts, the site of the first Thanksgiving.  Because I was going to be a week in Rhode Island, I read up on the history of that tiny state, which I, and I bet most Americans, know precious little about. 

What struck me was how the first English immigrants to the future Rhode Island like the original Pilgrim settlers of Massachusetts itself were religious refugees  who were being persecuted in, wait for it, Massachusetts.  By 1636, the colony founded by Puritans separatists looking for religious freedom had essentially become a theocracy, in which religious dissent was not tolerated.

Now, as anyone familiar with the bloody saga of European history knows, this isn’t surprising at all.  It seems to be the nature of all religions to eventually splinter into different groups, which then become fierce enemies of one another.  A scene in the movie “The Life of Brian” illustrates this hilariously.  As a crowd of “followers” who have mistaken Brian as the messiah chase after him, he accidently loses a sandal and drops the gourd he was carrying.  The crowd instantly splits into two, one group venerating the gourd, the other the sandal.  As both groups begin to argue they completely lose track of their “messiah” Brian.

But back to Rhode Island.  A man named Roger Williams felt that his fellows Puritans of Massachusetts had not separated sufficiently from the Church of England, and he wouldn’t shut up about it.  He was ultimately forced to flee to what would become Rhode Island, where he founded a new community where, unlike in Massachusetts, the roles of church and state were kept separate.  Rhode Island became a haven for religious mavericks, like Quakers, and as early as 1658 was also giving sanctuary to Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. 

Meanwhile, Massachusetts authorities would only loosen their control over religion gradually, and not before hanging Quakers for the crime of, well, being Quakers, and independent women for the crime of being “witches”. 

The separation of church and state, conceived in Rhode Island, went on to become the model for all America, and is something that makes the US exceptional.  Naturally, religion has evolved differently in many countries like Finland, where it has been traditionally tied closely to the political establishment.  The most noticeable thing about religious life here is that, out of custom, almost everyone belongs to a church, but almost no one takes it seriously enough to step inside one more than once a year. 

That’s not to say that no one here believes in a deity.  Many, maybe most, probably do, at least in a casual way.  Nor does it mean that some Finns don’t have heartfelt religious beliefs – they just keep it to themselves for the most part.  It’s rare to hear Finns voluntarily express their religious feelings in the way that many Americans do.  This is an extremely secular society which, as someone who’s not religious at all, suits me fine. 

An old colleague of mine, a devout Catholic from the Boston area, had a theory about this lack of religiosity in Finland:  he wondered whether it was because there’s no separation of church and state here. 

There are two national churches here, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox, both of which are part of the national government.  In practice, this mainly means that church members study religion in public school as a compulsory subject (not unlike algebra) and that the Finnish government collects a “church tax” of about 1% from all church members to fund church operations.  (There are also smaller, more-charismatic denominations that are not state-supported.) 

The church tax alone has been reason enough for many people who have no real religious feelings and belong to the church only because their parents had them baptized at the age of two months to leave the church altogether.  Nowadays you can do it on-line.  This year alone, tens of thousands of Finns have decided to separate from the Lutheran church for an entirely different reason.  The church’s position against gay marriage, which seems a bit out of step with this generally tolerant society, has prompted many of the younger parishioners to vote with their feet. 

It seems my friend from Boston might have been on to something.  While the US has a “free market” of churches that encourages a vibrant religious life, the “official” status of churches in Finland which can make faith just another part of citizenship, like voting, and easily taken for granted seems to encourage the opposite.  At least, it doesn’t seem to help. 

But maybe that’s only true in secular Europe.  There are many countries where state involvement in religion and strong religiosity do go hand in hand.  Iran comes to mind.  In any case, I think the “hands off” approach of government to religion in America is something that both believers and non-believers should be thankful for.  I know I am.