Friday, December 23, 2011


Last weekend we bought our Christmas tree (joulukuusi), a bit earlier than we normally do, mainly so that our son, who’s on leave from the army, would have a chance to help decorate it before he unfortunately had to return to his barracks for the holidays

The tradition here in Finland is to decorate the tree only on Christmas Eve itself, but our habit has always been to do it a day or so earlier, just after my in-laws arrived from eastern Finland with a tree freshly cut from their farmer neighbor’s forest. 

A landscape made for Christmas, Repovesi National Park.
Photo: M . Passinen.
In recent years, however, we’ve started doing what most Helsinkians do, schlep out to one of the many stores and pick out a tree from those freshly unloaded from trucks.  Not surprising for a country covered in boreal forests, the supply seems almost endless.  For most people here, only one kind of Christmas tree will do, the kuusi, or Norway spruce (Picea abies), though it's also possible to buy other species imported from abroad.  

An interesting thing about Christmas trees sold in Finland is that most of them are just the leftovers from full-grown trees that have been harvested in the normal course of commercial logging.  The loggers simply keep the top two or three meters a 30-meter tall spruce and put it aside for the Christmas tree market.  As far as I know, almost no trees are grown for the sole purpose of brightening up someone’s living room for a week or so.  Maybe that’s why I’ve never seen a single Christmas-tree farm anywhere in Finland. 

My late parents had a tree farm in Georgia, a small one.  After they had sold their mom-and-pop dry-cleaning shop and became retired, they decided to turn the unused pasture around our house into a tree farm.  It was a brilliant idea.  It gave them a way to stay busy, especially around Christmastime, make some extra money and -- maybe just as importantly -- interact with the public, something I think they were missing after they stopped running a small business where townspeople came and went all day.  The farm was a great business for my parents.  They had many repeat customers, people who would drive up from places like Atlanta every year to walk around the farm and find just the right tree for my father to cut for them. 

Commercial X-mas tree farm in Iowa.
Georgia being Georgia, the trees that my parents grew were mostly white pines (Pinus strobus).  Though it’s a species that most Finns would not recognize as a real Christmas tree, white pines actually do make fine Christmas trees, especially when carefully shaped and trimmed. 

But what seemed a bit too strange for my Finnish wife was how my parents would spruce up the white pines for the cutting season by -- white pines being, well, not so dark -- spraying them with green dye to make them “greener”.  America being America, that’s just the way things are done there in the Christmas tree growing business. 

Whether dyed, naturally green, or even 100% plastic, you have to admit that once you’ve added the lights, the ornaments, and, not least of all, the presents, any Christmas tree in the home brings the right amount of cheer and excitement for the holiday season. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

Christmas tree in Denmark.  Photo: Malene Thyssen, 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Day the Day Stood Still

Today is a day that I admit I never once paid the least bit attention to when I lived in Georgia, but has taken on a certain significance for me since I moved to Finland. It's päivänseisaus, which in the literal English translation would be "the stopping of day", or as I like to think of it, "the day that day stood still".  (To be exact, this is talvipäivänseisaus, or “the winter stopping of day”.  I know, but it makes a big difference.)

Sunrise at Stonehenge.  Photo: Mark Grant.
What this day is actually called in English is, of course, "winter solstice". It's the first day of winter, the shortest day of the year, and –  most importantly for us up here in the near Arctic trying to cope with winter darkness – it is the precise moment when days start, very gradually at first, to get longer. The worm has turned.  Earth will now somehow not keep growing darker and darker until there is no hope of a return to a world of sunlight.  There is an end to nights that get ever longer and deeper.  We’re over the hump and can now really believe in the coming of summer.   

I’m happy to see the solstice and encouraged that this is now as dark as it gets, and can understand why (without all the New Age nonsense) this day was important enough for prehistoric people to go to elaborate means to observe its occurrence.  Stonehenge very possibly was built with this in mind, as it is aligned to the direction the sun sets at the winter solstice.  In Ireland, I have visited a similar site even older than Stonehenge.  Newgrange is a circular earthen mound with a narrow tunnel that allows sunlight to fill a tiny room deep in its interior, but only once a year – at sunrise on the winter solstice.

Without all the artificial light that we now take for granted, the end of longer nights must surely have been a cause for celebration for the ancients.  And so it was.  Different cultures all over the world have long marked the solstice in various ways.  It’s why we celebrate Christmas at this time of year, instead of whenever Jesus may have actually been born.  

Newgrange, a neolithic mound in Ireland.  Photo: Shira.
The pagan Finnish celebration of kekri, an autumn harvest festival that may not be  directly related to the solstice, was likewise incorporated into Christmas, though it lived on as the main wintertime feast (not Christmas) in rural farming communities well into the 1800s, with elements of it still existing today. 

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the true meaning of Christmas is that the darkest days of winter are behind us, knowing this is so does give me a lot of cheer.  

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Christmas Variability

It’s only a few days before Christmas, and I’m finding it a little depressing.  It’s been raining for days, the river near our house is swollen and brown, and outside it’s inky black by four in the afternoon.  It shouldn’t be this way.  It feels unnatural. 

What’s missing is the snow.  Big fluffy flakes should be falling from the sky, not rain, the river should be almost frozen enough to ski on, and even the long nights should be more luminescent, with white snow covering everything. 

We’ve been suffering unseasonably mild weather the past month, with temperatures hovering just a few degrees above freezing, way too warm for snow.  This time last year, our yard was covered in 60 centimeters (two feet) of the white stuff, though admittedly that winter was the snowiest we’ve had in years.  As it is now, we’re well on our way to a non-white Christmas, only the second or third time that’s happened in the twenty-five years or so I’ve lived here.  The last time was in 2007. 

I’ve heard it’s been unusually warm in some parts of the States as well, despite a freakily early winter storm that hit the Northeast in late October.  Georgia saw highs of about 20 (68 F) last week, prompting one of my Facebook friends to comment that if this was global warming, he was all for it. 

Of course, as with almost everything else these days, “the weather” has become politicized.  My wife, who is a scientist, was recently in a meeting where an agricultural researcher from Kentucky told her how political correctness has forced American universities to change the way they talk about climate change. 

Already some years ago, the term “global warming”, which is in fact a correct description of what is happening to the Earth’s climate, fell out of favor.  This was because “global warming” made it too easy for skeptics to ridicule the idea whenever some part of the world experienced weather that was much colder than normal.  The term “climate change” seemed more acceptable.  But, as the man from Kentucky told my wife, today even “climate change” is not politically neutral enough for the skeptics.  Now the current PC term is climate variability.  It’s like trying to avoid using the word “war” by instead saying “peace variability”. 

When the big storm hit in October, conservative commentator Erick Erickson tweeted something to the effect that major snowstorms at Halloween are not exactly making a strong case for “global warming”.  Being from Georgia, he should know better. 

This past summer, Georgia experienced extreme drought conditions across most of the state.  Temperatures in Atlanta were over two degrees (4 F) above average.  Rainfall for the year has been about 25% below normal, with Atlanta even now having a rainfall deficit of about 12 inches (30 cm).  Water levels in rivers and lakes are significantly down.  Lake Lanier (the state’s biggest reservoir and a major source of water for Atlanta) is currently eleven feet (over three meters) below the “full” level.  The “good” news is that even as low as Lanier has dropped this year, it is still not as bad as during Georgia’s last severe drought, in 2007, the same year we in Finland celebrated Christmas without snow. 

While Erick Erickson was quick to crow about how (in his mind) an unseasonal winter storm helps to disprove global warming, I suspect he didn’t come to the opposite conclusion during the long summer of abnormally hot and dry weather.  Nor should he.

One bad early winter storm or even a whole summer of drought can simply be outliers to the overall trend in the weather.  They are just single data points.  What’s important is the overall trend, based on a lot of such data points, lots of observations over time.  I tend to trust the scientists who have looked at all the data and found the long-range trend clearly pointing to a warmer planet.  But the data point that concerns me the most at the moment is the fact that, once again, there’ll be no snow at Christmas.  

Helsinki's Senate Square, as it should look this time of the year.  Photo by Jonik

Friday, December 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor

This past week marked the 70th anniversary of the December 7th attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.  Though I was born long after that surprise raid, which ushered American’s entry into World War II, the date is firmly planted in my memory – much like “9/11” will be embedded in the consciousness of Americans who were not born ten years ago, or even yet today.   

As a kid, I wasn't so far removed from the events that occurred on that infamous day.  (And let’s face it, I was born only 15 years later.)  In one sense, I was separated from the event by only two degrees.  The little elementary school I attended employed a janitor/bus driver named Leroy.  I remember this kindly, mild-mannered man mainly for his pleading with us students not to flush popsicle sticks down the toilets.  One day, however, our teacher asked Leroy to come and speak to the class about something considerably more serious.  Leroy had been there at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack.  I’m sure we woolly-brained kids were not the most attentive audience, and I don't really remember anything he told us then about that day, except that he was stationed at the army base there.   I now regret not understanding at the time what a rare chance we were given to hear a first-person account of something so historic. 

Still, the real reason World War II featured prominently in my young mind was that my father fought in the Pacific.  A couple of years before Pearl Harbor, my father and a buddy had left home (without his mother's knowledge) to join the Coast Guard, partly because he felt that war was coming anyway and he didn't want to be just another raw recruit when it did.

Gunner's Mate 1st Class Hoover Tankersley.

When the Japanese attacked on December 7th, my father was on leave in Savannah, Georgia, where his Coast Guard cutter was stationed.  As news of the attack came in, the Shore Patrol scoured the streets of Savannah to find him and enough of his shipmates to man the cutter and put her to sea as quickly as possible.

The war never really came to Georgia, though, and my father, along with the rest of the Coast Guard, was incorporated into the US Navy during the war.  He went on to serve as a Gunner's Mate operating an anti-aircraft battery on a Navy LST (Landing Ship, Tank), a specialized ship used during amphibious invasions to off-load men and heavy equipment directly onto a beachhead.  

On the way to the action against the Japanese, my father's ship was first used for the more mundane task of transporting supplies to Hawaii, including a large consignment of beer – which my father noted somehow became a little less large as the LST made its way from San Diego to Pearl Harbor.  

After that beer run, my father's ship, LST-782, took part in one amphibious landing after another in the “island hopping” campaign across the Pacific, eventually joining the invasion of Iwo Jima as part of a 450-vessel flotilla.  I remember as a kid once playing on the top of a six-foot-high mound of clay uprooted by a fallen tree near our house, a mound that we named Mount Suribachi after the volcanic peak that was the objective of fierce fighting in the battle for Iwo Jima.  Even as a kid I had internalized the name of the summit where six servicemen raised the American flag in a moment captured in an iconic photo made famous worldwide.  Maybe it was because of my father telling us kids how from his ship he could see the flag flying high atop Suribachi.  

An LST preparing for action in Korea, 1950.

My father's LST delivered its cargo of equipment, food and ammo via various smaller amphibious craft over a period of four days, retiring to anchor offshore at night while the hellish fighting ensued on the island.  On the fourth day, the LST beached itself on the volcanic sand of the beach and opened its gaping bow doors to bring on casualties and serve hot food to weary Marines taking a break from the fighting.  It was reported that they served 5500 cups of coffee in a 12-hour period.

When the war ended, five months later, with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my father's ship was preparing for the ultimate invasion of the Japanese home islands, something I'm sure he dreaded, as fierce resistance was expected.  When the news broke of Japan's surrender, the crew of LST-782 was ordered to dump into the sea its cargo of Army jeeps, which would have been used in the invasion.   

Dropping the atomic bombs brought the war in Pacific to an abrupt end, as we all know, removing the need for an invasion of Japan that my father might have not survived.  It's sobering, humbling in fact, to think that the horrific bombing of two cities, which extinguished upwards of a quarter of a million lives, might have been indirectly responsible for my own life being brought into existence – which I do realize doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things.  Still, it does make you think about how events, some too horrible to contemplate, that happened long ago in places we'll never see can ripple over our own lives in unexpected ways.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Red Carpet Finland

Nations, like people, don’t get to choose when they’re born.  If they did, I’d wager Finland would have opted for a birth in summertime, a season made for celebrations outside in the sunshine.  It all comes down to an accident of history, of course.  Americans can be thankful that the Founding Fathers suffered through the sweltering heat of a Philadelphia summer to finally put the finishing touches on our Declaration of Independence just in time for the 4th of July. 

Finland’s birth in 1917 was not so well-timed.  Already with the overthrow of Czar Nicholas II earlier that year, Finland – an autonomous part of Russia – set its sights on even more autonomy.  During the pleasant months of summer, chaos ensued in Russia and civil war erupted in Finland.  The tumult finally came to a head in the dreary days of November, when the Bolsheviks ignited the second Russian revolution of that year and the Soviet Union was born.  Finland took that opportunity to rush for the exits, declaring its independence on December 6th

Pekka Haavisto, parliament member and Green Party 
presidential candidate, with his partner at last year's party.  

The result is a national day of celebration at the bleakest and less fun time of the year.  Grilling hotdogs outside in freezing rain or snow during the mere six hours of near-twilight that passes for daytime in November is no one’s idea of fun.  It’s not for nothing that marraskuu, Finnish for “November”, derives from a word that means death. 

It’s not due to the weather alone that Itsenäisyyspäivä is a more solemn affair than Fourth of July.  The fact that people died in a bitter civil war at the birth of modern Finland is still a harsh reality nearly within living memory.  One way the holiday is celebrated is by somber candle-lit marches along dark streets.  More common is the custom, followed almost without exception, of every home placing a lit candle on a windowsill from precisely six to eight in the evening to commemorate those who died, 94 years ago and since, to ensure Finland's independence. 

But it’s not all gloom.  In fact, the real centerpiece of the holiday is the president’s ball, a festive tradition hard to underestimate for its power to captivate the Finnish nation, especially the female portion.  It is, in some sense, the Finnish equivalent to the hoopla surrounding the Oscars.  The basic idea, which never varies, is that the president and his or her spouse stand for two hours at the head of a reception line, shaking the hands of a couple of thousand guests, who slowly file along a red carpet into a stately ballroom while a military band provides a constant background of sedate, semi-martial music. 

Eija-Riitta Korhola, EU parliament member, 
at last year's party.

The lucky invitees include all parliament and cabinet members, high-ranking government and military officials, foreign diplomats, and captains of Finnish industry (such as, this year, the marketing genius behind Angry Birds).  Also, invited are sports and entertainment personalities who have been especially successful during the year.  The guests move slowly along the red carpet accompanied by their spouses or dates, which – befitting liberal Finland – also nowadays include same-sex couples. 

The entire procession of dignitaries is televised by YLE, the state-run TV station, with off-camera presenters explaining who the most notable guests are and – in true red-carpet fashion – commenting on their fashion.  The more stunning evening gowns are examined in close-up shots and replayed in slow motion.  These will also be featured in the pages of the next day’s tabloids, along with other highlights from the party. 

Champion figure skater Laura Lepistö, in 2010.

After greeting the president, all the guests wait, packed almost sardine-like, in the ballroom watching the procession until the last honored guests, always the former presidents, have been greeted by the first couple.  Refreshments then follow, with the most distinguished guests joining President Halonen in the "Yellow Salon" for coffee and dessert and polite conversation (also televised). 

This is also when the TV hosts begin on-air interviews with notable partygoers.  A popular target for the reporters this year was Olli Rehn, the current EU economic and finance commissioner, who had taken a break from trying to avert the complete collapse of the eurozone to fly in from Brussels just for the party. 

After coffee, the dancing starts, with President Halonen and her husband kicking off the first waltz.  As the evening progresses, the military band ups the tempo with slightly more contemporary tunes, while cadets stand by to dance with any female guest who doesn't have a date.  The dance floor is so crowded that couples can hardly move, but I’ve heard that after the television cameras shut off, the room  quickly clears out except for those who just want to dance. 

Parliament member Tanja Karpela at last year's ball.

Before the night is through, the celebration moves to after parties located at various Helsinki nightspots, some with television crews on hand to capture the action.  Television coverage continues the next day when one of the commercial stations airs its own condensed version of the previous night’s festivities.  

For all the self-conscious showiness of the party, it is genuinely considered an honor to be invited and probably a lot of fun, not to mention popular to watch – about half the population is estimated to have tuned into last night's ball.  And why shouldn’t Finns put on a little glitz and party down (after a fashion) in front of the cameras.  You could say they’ve won the right to choose how to celebrate the independence of their nation – despite weather outside that might, just might, tempt some to forsake it for one with a bit more sunshine.