This story was originally published in the fifth edition of The Lion’s Tale (March 26, 2021).
Being an exchange student means receiving a lot of questions. Most people do not know much, if anything, about Finland, and my job is of course to answer the questions and discuss my culture.
A couple of the things that really define a culture, and give others a way to connect with it, are holidays and traditions. Some celebrations here in America are new to me, but many were familiar thanks to movies and TV shows. On the other hand, I bet that most people reading this have not heard about Vappu or Juhannus.
Like the United States, we celebrate a lot of holidays that have Christian origins. Christmas and Easter are both really big holidays in Finland as well, but we have some traditions related to them that are unique to our country. For Easter, children will decorate branches of pussy willow with colorful feathers and silk paper, dress up as witches and go around the neighborhood handing out the decorated branches in exchange for candy. This is a tradition similar to trick-or-treating on Halloween. We also have many traditional dishes for Easter aside from chocolate eggs. We eat an oatmeal-like dessert called Mämmi, which is made out of rye and served with sugar and milk or creme. For Christmas, our traditions are very similar to ones practiced here. Spending Christmas in America was surprisingly familiar to me. The primary difference is that we open presents on Christmas Eve instead of the day itself.
Some American holidays have integrated in our culture over the years. Both Valentine’s Day and Halloween are celebrated in Finland, but usually not as big as here in the U.S. Valentine’s Day is translated as “Friend’s Day” and most people do not take it too seriously. Here, I definitely noticed that many people felt alone on Feb. 14 if they did not have a significant other.
During the spring months, Finns have many holidays. The biggest of them, Vappu, is celebrated on the last day of April and continues on the first day of May. This holiday celebrates students and workers. Graduated students wear their graduation hats, which look like sailor hats, and overalls in colors corresponding to their major. In Finland during this time, spring is in the air, and most people celebrate outside. The cities are filled with people drinking, eating and partying. We eat a lot of fried sweets, like doughnuts and funnel cakes, and drink mead. Children get big helium balloons and many people gather in public parks with friends.
The other big Finnish holiday is Juhannus, or Midsummer, so named because it is the feast day of John the Baptist. It is celebrated on the longest day of the year, which is at the end of June. In the north of Finland, the sun never sets on this day, and it does so in the south only for a few hours. There are many traditions connected to this holiday, many of which originate from hundreds of years ago. Most people will eat grilled summer foods and celebrate with family and friends. Traditionally we build big bonfires that ward off evil spirits. Flower decorations, such as flower crowns, are common during this celebration.
Flowers also play a role in an old, superstitious Juhannus tradition. Young girls are to pick seven different flowers and place them under their pillow on the night of Midsummer. After picking the first flower, you have to be completely silent and not speak until the next morning. If you succeed with this task, your future husband will show up in your dreams.
One big celebration I am going to miss here in America is the Fourth of July. Since I am leaving in June, I won’t be here to take part in one of the country’s biggest festivities. In Finland, we celebrate our independence day on the sixth of December. The celebrations are small compared to the ones during the Fourth of July, but there is one thing that almost everybody does on this day- we gather around the TV and watch the presidential ball. This event is hosted by the president at his residence and features influential and important people. It is streamed live on TV for everyone to watch. The best part of the evening is critiquing the dresses and gowns of the guests.
Celebrating Thanksgiving and other American holidays has been fun, and I feel like I have been able to experience a lot of American culture, even though we have been in a pandemic this whole year. I love how enthusiastically Americans celebrate holidays, with decorations, foods and traditions, and how people are able to still make these special days feel fun, even when people have been through many hardships this year.