In Finland there are two customs that have
particular significance at Christmas the ‘Heaven’ and the family
sauna. The Finnish ‘Heaven’ is made by suspending a large canopy of
straw from the ceiling in the dining room. The children then attach stars
made of paper or foil to it and with the light reflecting on them from the
candles and the fireplace, it resembles a starlit sky.
On Christmas Eve after the ‘Heaven’
is put up, the family makes their traditional visit to the sauna. This
custom is centuries old, although the sauna itself is fairly new to North
America. After the sauria, everyone gets dressed in their finest clothes
and then gathers around the table under the ‘Heaven’ for a meal of
porridge, fish and other dishes.
Following supper, in many parts of
Finland, the big moment for the children is the arrival of Ukko, the gift
giver. He is also known as Old Ukko or Great Ukko. Originally one of the
chief gods of the Finnish pantheon in pagan times, his title was ‘the
ancient father who reigns in the heavens’. He was the god of the sky and
the air who supported the world, gathered the clouds and made the rain
fall. He had a special affection for the people of Finland and was invoked
when all the other gods had been called on in vain. He gradually became
the protector of the poor, the outcasts and children.
Even after Christianity was accepted by
the Finns, the memory of Ukko persisted. Today his role is seen primarily
as the gift giver for the Christmas festival. He is described as an old
man with a long, white moustache, but, uniquely, with no beard; possibly a
Mongolian influence since the Slays were ancestors of the people of
Finland. Ukko wears a white cap with blue bands and a red coat trimmed
Ukko travels each Christmas from Lapland.
In Finnish mythology, Lap/and, the Land of the North, was considered to be
the Home Page of magical singers and enchanters. Ukko was the lord of this
wondrous place and made his Home Page there, on a hill called Korvantunturi.
Ukko travels from Lapland and on a sleigh
guided by reindeer. Lapland is the original Home Page of the reindeer and Ukko
is one of the first gift givers to be depicted using this means of
transportation. Of course, eventually Santa Claus would have a team of
eight reindeer. Ukko is also accompanied by as many as half a dozen
Christmas elves who help to distribute the presents to the children.
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