Midwinter in a minor key

23 December 2009 | Letter from the Editors

Finland’s end-of-year celebrations, both Christmas and New Year, take place in a thoroughly muted mode. At noon on Christmas Eve the Christmas Peace is rung out from the mediaeval cathedral in Turku, with the pious and seldom realised hope that peace and harmony will be unbroken for the following twelve days.

It’s true, though, that there’s little of the carousing that characterises Christmas celebrations further south; by and large, people stay behind closed doors, and there’s plenty of time, in the dark mornings and evenings and the brief twilight between them, to eat and drink and sleep – and, for those whose souls are not entirely claimed by the television and food-induced torpor, to read.

Here are some suggestions of hand-picked, freshly translated Finnish winter reading from the Books from Finland website to snuggle up with: excerpts from new novels by Kristina Carlson (set in England in the time of Charles Darwin), Jari Järvelä (telling the sooty tale of a female chimney sweep) and Juha Hurme (who gives Finnishness some rather unusual definitions), or new poems by Ilpo Tiihonen (about fakirs, beggars and poets); or a most beastly story for children (recommended for adults, too) by Roman Schatz, an essay on the meaning of life by Kari Enqvist; or, or… our archives are full of good reading for those with the time and the inclination to browse them.


This year, our imaginations have been caught by one of the best-known pieces of Finnish Christmas music, Sylvia’s Christmas song, which has time and again been voted the best-loved Christmas tune. You can listen to it here in a performance by the evergreen Tapani Kansa, a versatile performer of both trad and pop. Written, in his native Swedish, by the multitalented 19th-century teller of fairytales Zacharias Topelius (1818–1898), it neatly overturns the romantic admiration of southern Europe so common in these northernly latitudes. ‘But up in the rafters there hangs high above, / The cage that imprisons my soul’s turtledove; / And quiet are now all the prisoner’s groans, / But oh, who pays heed to a prisoner’s moans?’: Anniina Jokinen has translated two of the four stanzas into English, see this page of her website. Here are the same two verses in the original Swedish:

Och nu är det jul i min älskade nord,
är det jul i hvårt hjärta också?
Grenljusen de brinna på rågade bord,
och barnen i väntan stå.
Där borta i taket, där hänger han än,
den bur, som har fångat min trognaste vän.
Och sången har tystnat i fängelseborg,
o, hvem har ett hjärta för sångarens sorg?….

Och stråla, du klaraste stärna i skyn,
Se ned på min älskade nord!
Och när du går bort under himmelens bryn,
välsigna min fädernejord!
I blommande vårar, på gyllene strand,
hvar finnes ett land som mitt fädernesland?
För dig vill jag sjunga om kärlek och vår,
så länge din Sylvias hjärta slår.

Dated Christmas Eve 1853, the poem is set in the southern climes of Sicily: looking at Mount Etna and listening to birdsong, the poet thinks about his own cold, faraway country in the north. Singing its heart out, the little bird (not a turtledove, in fact, but Sylvia atricapilla, the blackcap), is caged, and this has sometimes been interpreted as an allegory of Finland’s position under Russian rule in the mid-19th century. But finally, despite the lovely scent of oranges wafting in the air, the poet cannot restrain himself from praising his dear homeland as the best in the whole wide world.

The music is by Karl Collan (1828–1871), who gave the text a yearning setting that is guaranteed to bring tears not only to the eyes of ex-pat Finns but also to those of quite a few at home in Finland.


True enough, at this time of year blackcaps have migrated to warmer climes – but we do have the reindeer and Joulupukki (the yule goat) to brighten the gloom. No baby Jesus brings us our gifts, no Santa Claus attempts to squeeze himself down the fireplaces to drink sherry, no: from his home on Korvatunturi Fell, the one and only, genuine, original Joulupukki rides (business as usual) in his present-laden sleigh, pulled by (edible and renewable) reindeer, and that’s that. Ho-ho-ho!

We wish you all happy holidays, a very merry Christmas and a new year filled with peace, joy and good reading.


Photo: Soila Lehtonen


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