Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Peace

This is Boxing Day in Finland, or rather Tapaninpäivä (“St. Stephen’s Day”). It’s not a holiday celebrated back in the Baptist heartland I grew up in. Well, it’s not exactly “celebrated” here either, but it is a day when most stores are closed and most people are off work. It’s a peaceful pause after the all the hectic activity leading up to Christmas. For me, it’s also a welcome sign that, now that Christmas is over, the long and grueling War on Christmas in America is over too, for another year.  

Americans do have a tendency now and then to declare war on things other than countries: the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror (the only such “war” so far in which bombs have been dropped on anyone, though mostly on people who are not actual terrorists). Luckily, the War on Christmas has resulted in no fatalities as far as I know. I did hear that this year a Salvation Army bell ringer was punched by a passing woman who was pissed when she was greeted with a “Happy Holidays” instead of a “Merry Christmas”. No doubt, Jesus would have done the same.

In Finland, there is no War on Christmas. Here, the holiday hasn’t become an ever-growing source of grievance and bitching for a “persecuted” Christian majority, mainly because – I would say – no one, for the purpose of scoring political points (or in the case of renown author Sarah Palin, also for turning a buck), is constantly telling American Christians how very, very persecuted they are. 

To be clear, the "War on Christmas" is how certain religious folks in the US describe the secularization of the holiday, as if this is something new. In my mind, it easily becomes an excuse to rally and rile up the faithful. And, boy, is it tedious

Here are some highlights of Christmas warmongering that the less belligerent Finns miss out on:

The Christmas Greetings War. "Defenders” of Christmas in America often complain that the recent corrupting trend of people using “neutral” holiday greetings, rather than the only truly acceptable expression of “Merry Christmas”, is due to misguided political correctness. Interestingly, I have a X-mas card my parents used around 1958 with the inscription “Season’s Greetings”. No mention of Christ. Could it be that way back then my parents, outwardly good, church-going folks, were actually part of a fifth column in the War on Christmas? Or, could it be that the outrage over saying “Happy Holidays” is just a recently manufactured controversy? Hint:  it’s the latter.

In Finnish, the word for “Christmas” is joulu, which is related to the ancient pagan festival of Yule. The name itself has no explicit reference to Christ, so taking “Christ” out of the greeting of “Hauskaa Joulua” isn’t an issue. He wasn’t exactly there in the first place.

The Christmas Race War. This year, one of the war’s most intense skirmishes was over the complexion of someone who doesn’t exist. Megyn Kelly, an anchor on Fox News, became a bit excited over the question of whether Santa Claus can ever be represented as any other race than Caucasian. To settle the issue, she declared, “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white,” then adding for good measure, “Jesus was a white man, too.”

The Internet ignited, almost like a super nova appearing in the east.

If you think this kind of thing wouldn’t be worthy of any grown-up discussion, you certainly haven’t been paying attention to US politics over the last few years.

Now, I admit that St. Nick has always been depicted as white. You would expect this for an imaginary creature arising in Europe, famous as it is as the origin of such pasty-white mythical figures as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Smurfette. Okay, I guess even in European folklore there’s some wiggle room when it comes to skin color.

But, I don’t see why anyone should be too worked on either side of this issue. In a modern, multiracial country like America, would it be so unsettling for a kid to see an Asian Santa, a Hispanic Santa or even a Black Santa? On the other hand, after all of the millions of dollars that have been invested in plastering the world with images of a rosy-cheeked white Santa, don’t we owe it to a certain Georgia-based soft-drink company to resist any other possible visions of Santa dancing in our heads. We owe them. They’ve paid so much for that slice of our minds. They've paid so much.

Of course, this obsession with Santa is also good business for Finland, the one and only home of Joulupukki (“The Yule Goat”) and the site of a successful tourist destination, the Santa Claus Village, in Lapland.

Although Finland has adopted the Americanized version of Santa, white beard, red suit and all, the original Finnish Santa was a goat. Literally. No one here seems too worried about whether or not he was a white goat. I’m guessing he was gray, maybe with dark highlights.

Anyway, the fixation of Fox News and some folks on the right over the ethnicity of a non-religious character who nowadays is mostly just an ad-agency creation (not that there’s anything wrong with that) seems strange in light of how little it has anything to do with Jesus’ birthday. Which is nothing.

I’ve understood that in some European countries, such as Spain, Santa is often seen as an unwanted “Americanization” of Christmas. There, the celebration centers more around the January 5th visit of the Three Kings (known as the Three Wise Men in the US), who are the ones who leave presents for children. It ain't Santa.

The Three Kings also play a bigger role in Finland than in the American version of Christmas. In many schools, and even some company Christmas parties, a trio of boys (or men) dressed as wise men from the Orient and wielding cardboard swords perform a small song recounting the story of the Nativity. One of these Tiernapojat (or “Star Boys”) is always done up in blackface, apparently based on the tradition that one of the wise men bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh for the Baby Jesus was African.

So far, there has been no controversy here over whether or not this is politically correct. But then again, Finns are not an especially contentious people, even at Christmastime.

Joulupukki as he appeared in our house this year,
helping himself to some gingerbread. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Uncivil Wars

Not long ago I borrowed from our local library a book, Punamustavalkea -- 1918 kuvat ("Red Black & White -- 1918 Pictures"), which documents the Finnish Civil War in a collection of photographs that are sometimes both banal and deeply unsettling.

One that particularly sticks in my mind was taken in my wife’s home town of Varkaus, a place I know well and, let’s be frank -- though it has its charms, I guess -- I’ve always found to be a bit dull. (This is my elitist cosmopolitan Helsinki sensibility showing through.)

In this nearly 100-year-old image, two men stand with their backs to a tall pile of cut timber, precisely the kind of stack of logs you can see anywhere in the Finnish countryside today. One of the men, the older one, has an old-fashion, Lech Walesa style moustache. Other than that and their dress, which I can’t help think of as being straight out of a production of “The Fiddler on the Roof”, the two look like any two Finnish men you would see today at a hockey game or in a office cubicle.

It must be springtime, judging by the scattered patches of snow in the background and the brightness of the day. One of the men has carelessly thrown his coat on the bare ground beside him, the other holds his cap in his hand. They both, with eyes downcast, stand expectantly facing a group of other men, fellow Finns, standing not four steps away with rifles leveled straight at these two hapless men. A moment later, after the photo was snapped, they would be dead.

What I find so moving and compelling about this image of an impromptu firing squad (“summary execution” in today’s media-speak) forever frozen in time, is not only the tragedy of two men standing there, dazed, grappling at that moment with the horrible knowledge of their imminent death.

It’s also the “ordinariness” of the setting, an early-spring day in a place I associate with drowsy summer vacations. And it’s the fact that any of those men with rifles could easily pass for one of my neighbors. It’s not impossible that some of the men about to pull the trigger were neighbors of the two poor souls standing impassively before them.

I can’t say I know much about the Finnish Civil War (Suomen sisällissota) beyond what little I’ve read, but I have understood that it was brutal. From late January to mid May of that year, 1918, right after Finnish independence, conservatives (the Whites) with the help of German troops fought and defeated the supporters of the Finnish Social Democratic Party (the Reds). In just over a hundred days, Finns on both sides slaughtered over 20,000 of their fellow countrymen, many in cold-blooded bouts of terror and retribution, a fact that somehow seems completely incompatible with the Finland I know today.

There are still small reminders of this cruel conflict, however, beyond mere photographs. I recall seeing in Lahti, a small city best known for ski jumping, a memorial commemorating the massacre of Reds that took place there. The National Museum in Helsinki has famously preserved a bullet hole left in its front door from the fighting. My wife remembers the impressive constellation of bullet holes still visible in the side of a shed at her childhood home in Varkaus, a paper-mill town and a stronghold of Red supporters, probably like the two condemned men in the photo.

Red Terror depicted in a socialist newspaper, 1918.

In the scheme of things, this shockingly violent internal conflict took place not that long ago, much more recently than the one fought in the US.

And that’s what strikes me – how, in only three generations, such a short-lived, but bitter confrontation has been so completely healed over. Or so it seems. Living here now, in this land of civil tranquility and political consensus, it’s hard to imagine the killing spree that went on 95 years ago, while in America echoes of an even bloodier civil war still seem to reverberate.

To outside observers like myself, any real acrimony from that part of Finnish history has long since vanished. I do know someone whose grandfather and great-grandfather were interned together in the harsh prison camp on Suomenlinna for their leftist activities during the war (the elder one was among the 10% who did not survive the camp), and even whose father was unable to find work in the early 1950s due to the “sins” of his fathers. But for the present-day generation of Finns, such former hard feelings seem well and truly buried.

Maybe Finns are expert at sweeping things under the rug, even the killing of an average of  200 citizens a day at the hands of their compatriots. Or maybe they truly have moved on.

The conventional wisdom is that the threat of Soviet takeover in 1939 united the country, burying any lingering grievances from twenty years before. Perhaps this is why every year on Independence Day (Dec. 6th) the classic WWII movie Tuntematon sotilas ("The Unknown Soldier") is shown on TV, rather than any cinematic depiction of the civil war that erupted at the dawn of independence itself.

Americans sometimes don’t seem as adept at getting over the past. In the last few years, the US Civil War has surfaced as a surprisingly live issue for debate, with some folks refusing to accept that the true cause for the war was the odious institution of slavery. Such blinding denial so long after the fact is amazing. I hope it’s just a fringe thing.

At the same time, US politics seems to be flashing back some 150 years as old North-South divisions are re-emerging and the states that made up the Old Confederacy are increasingly coalescing into a solid reactionary bloc, thanks to the Tea Party. For example, all of the former CSA states, except Arkansas, have strongly resisted key provisions of Obamacare.  

The word “secession” has even been branded about, and not just by angry, crackpot letter-writers (or bloggers), but actual state officials. Of course, this is not to say any of these trends should be taken too seriously I expect the Tea Party will run out of steam well before  the point of open insurrection.

Still, it does feel that the scars from American’s own domestic bloodbath are surprisingly tenderer even now than those from the horrible-enough violence that Finns inflicted on each almost a century ago.