Christmas exhibition at the Old Kuopio Museum
Many of the features that are distinctive to a Finnish Christmas in the present day have their origins and became established during the end of the 19th century and at the start of the 20th century. Visitors to the Christmas exhibition at the Old Kuopio Museum can find out about how Christmas was spent at the end of the 19th century up to the 1930s. By this time, many of the features that are an essential element of Christmas today, such as a Christmas tree, presents, decorations and especially Christmas food, were already part of the festivities in Finnish homes.
Building 2 – Christmas of the gentility at the end of the 19th century
Start the tour by the Christmas tree.
Christmas trees in the homes of the wealthy were usually large as the rooms were tall and the tree had to look imposing. The tree, which would be heavily decorated, was placed in front of the window so that it could be seen from the street. An angel or Christmas star was placed at the top. A ribbon with a quotation from the Bible was usually draped around the tree, on which the following was written in gold lettering: ”Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men”. Trees were also decorated with apples, pretzels, gingerbread biscuits, and home-made ribbons, rosettes and stars.
At this stage, even in wealthy families Christmas presents were still ‘something small’, such as braids and pen wipes. The women would knit and sew their presents themselves, while men usually bought them. The most important part of the gift was the poem composed by the person giving it. Even at that time a Father Christmas wearing a mask would give out presents to the children.
Christmas apples in particular were imported from abroad at the end of the 19th century. More exotic foreign fruits, such as fresh oranges, were also transported from St Petersburg around Christmas time to shops in Kuopio for the wealthy to buy.
Christmas confectionery was also a feature of wealthy homes at Christmas, and these were served from a special table for confectionery along with dried fruit, nuts and almonds. The most common types of confectionery included jelly confectionery, which were made by Fazer, for example, and came in many different varieties.
The first Christmas flowers were hyacinths and red tulips. They were introduced at the end of the 19th century and became more common by the beginning of the 20th century.
Building 7 – Christmas preparations in a weaver’s home and tailor’s modest Christmas next door in the 1910–1920s
Christmas preparations are underway in the weaver’s home. The table in the middle of the room is cluttered from making gingerbread biscuits. Gingerbread biscuits were known in Central Europe as early as the Middle Ages. They came to Finland in the 18th century, although baking them at home only became common at the start of the 20th century.
The tub on the table is for dried cod for making into lutefisk. Lutefisk was originally a western Finnish Christmas dish, but at the start of the 20th century, it was eaten more widely and even found its way to Christmas tables in North Savo.
The traditional way to prepare lutefisk was the following: Dried pike or cod was skinned and placed in a wooden tub to soak in water for about a week. The soaking could also be done in a sack placed in a hole in the ice in a lake. Then the lye water was prepared by mixing birch ash in boiling water. The concoction was allowed to cool, after which it was strained. The soaked fish were placed in the lye water and allowed to steep in it for about a week. After this, the fish were removed and put into cold water for about 4–5 days. The water was changed every day. The lutefisk, which were now ready, were covered in a basket under the snow until they were used.
Building 12 – Christmas Eve of teachers’ family in the 1930s
By the 1930s, Christmas traditions were fairly similar throughout the country since magazines, schools and various organisations proved effective at disseminating similar types of Christmas traditions and ideals. Therefore, by this time, straw mobile decorations and goats, which were originally old Christmas decorations from south-west Finland, were already a familiar sight in homes in Kuopio.
The family living in this house already has several modern conveniences: water pipes, drains, electricity, a WC, and central heating. The Christmas dinner has been set on the kitchen table, and the Christmas ham is on the range.
The living room table is set for coffee. It is known that Christmas buns seasoned with saffron were made in manor houses at least as early as the beginning of the 19th century. During the early decades of the 20th century, the tradition of baking them spread to most Finnish homes.
During the 1930s, poinsettia became known as a Christmas flower in addition to tulips and hyacinths, and its popularity increased during the 1960s.
Extracts from Christmas radio programmes of the 1930s can be heard on the radio in the living room. The Christmas tree decorations are typical for the period: a Christmas star, sweets, apples and silver lametta. By this time, special candle holders for Christmas tree candles could already be bought.
Building 13 – Christmas of two neighbours: a cobbler i.e. shoemaker and a working-class family
The Christmas tree in the Cobbler’s residence is from around the beginning of the 20th century. It has a cross base, which for decades was the most common type of base for a tree.
Next to the tree is a Father Christmas doll that has been dressed in the same outfit as Father Christmases usually wore at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.
There are not many good pictures of Finnish Father Christmases from that period, but certain general characteristics recur in written descriptions. Father Christmas wore a sheepskin coat inside out, winter mittens, frieze trousers, leather or felt boots and on his head a fur cap inside out and horns made of birch bark (or real horn/wood horns). Father Christmas’ outfit also includes a ‘cudgel’ used as a walking stick, a sack of presents and twigs. This particular Father Christmas is wearing a birch bark mask and beard made of beard moss. No detailed information on the description of birch bark masks has survived, but apparently there were various different types of masks.
Finland is one of the few countries in which Father Christmas appears to children personally on Christmas. The tradition of a Father Christmas who gives out presents became more common in Finland during the latter half the 19th century in wealthy families and took hold in the entire nation by the start of the 20th century. Although as a phenomenon Father Christmas is international, the early Finnish Father Christmas got his outward appearance – and even his name ‘pukki’ in Finnish – from a goat figure with horns associated with Christmas games played on Boxing Day.
Industries in Kuopio were an important employer at the beginning of the 20th century. The one-room home of an industrial working-class family in the other end of the house is as it would have been at this time. The Christmas tree is hung up from the ceiling, which at that time was the usual way in the countryside and in modest working-class homes. This was also practical in a small home as some of the residents often had to sleep on the floor, since more than ten people could have lived in this small one-room home. A tree hanging from the ceiling did not take up any of the valuable floor space.
The Christmas tree decorations are modest: a few candles, an apple, a string of raisins, and a ribbon and frilly ribbons and link chains made from newspapers. Christmas trees in rural areas and the homes of working-class families were often left undecorated.
The window table has a Christmas bread decorated with corn ears, butter and barley porridge as the Christmas porridge. Rice porridge was in those times still mainly a porridge eaten by the wealthy at Christmas.