Santa Lucia

Illustration by Satomi Ichikawa in Merry Christmas – Children at Christmastime around the world (Wm.Heinemann, 1983)

in white dresses and red sashes…..

Today is Santa Lucia’s Day, celebrated by the Swedish and other Nordic communities. As I wrote a few years ago:

Lucia is the only saint celebrated by the Lutheran Swedes, Finns, Danes, and Norwegians, in celebrations that retain many pre-Christian elements of a midwinter light festival. Her feast day in the West is December 13, by the unreformed Julian calendar the longest night of the year. Lucia also means light, so this is a festival of lights in the dark northern countries. I find it fascinating how the many religious and pagan traditions meld and transform over time into our modern day celebrations.

A young maiden chosen as Lucia wears a white dress and red sash with a crown of candles and greens and leads a procession of other maidens in the same dresses minus the head candles. These processions may be in churches, schools and community halls including at our Scandinavian Centre last weekend and even as parades through towns and cities. Helsinki has an annual parade through the city.

Living in Canada, Lucia has been fairly unknown to me until reading and writing about it here the first time, and again here. The more I read, the more versions and interpretations I find. I rather like this one by Kalle Bergman.

If you aren’t already overwhelmed by too many links…. I keep thinking about light festivals, of which there are so many variations around the world… I love this spectacular one put on by Mother Nature. And listen to this beautiful Sancta Lucia song sung by Karita Mattila, the famous Finnish soprano. Happy Santa Lucia Day!

Happy 94th, Finland!

a reposting from four years ago, just read 94th:

In honour of Finland’s 90th Independence Day (Itsenäisyys Päivä) today, I have lit these two candles in a window, as is the custom there. “Why two candles? Well, one is for home, the other is for country. This silent custom, handed down from generation to generation, could be described as Finland’s greatest popular movement, with a message that everyone can subscribe to.”

For me, personally, the two candles also represent my roots in two countries, Finland and Canada.

This 90th Anniversary year is a special one that has been celebrated all year leading up to December 6th. Though a holiday, it’s traditionally a serious day in Finland, but some lighthearted chuckles can be enjoyed over the symbols for Finnishness that these nine foreigners and naturalized Finns offer.

I also appreciated the historical perspective of Finland written by another Finnish emigrant who lives just south of us, in Seattle.

Hyvää Itsenäisyyspäivää to Finland and my Finnish readers!
(Note: have removed certain links that have since gone dead…)

education in Finland

Finland’s education system has received a lot of international attention from educators the last decade or so. I’ve read much of it with great interest, being a Finn, a former teacher as well as a parent. I’m also a product of the Canadian education system which is rated as fairly good but has much room for improvement especially in education for immigrants, first nations and the learning-challenged even as constant cuts in funding of education take place.

Besides the excellent results of ‘no child left behind’, most remarkable is that all teachers have at least a masters degree, have freedom to teach as they wish and have the highest support and respect from governments and parents, unlike here in Canada and the USA, and yet education still costs less in Finland.

There’s much more so please read this article in the Smithsonian magazine. It is the best in-depth one that I have seen and I recommend it to anyone interested in education. Is education not the most important thing each country needs to provide for its young people and immigrants, and the best investment for the country’s future? Many thanks to Gabriolan for the link.

Related links:
A series of articles called Finland Diary by Robert G. Kaiser for the Washington Post in 2005, which I wrote about here.

Addendum: We purchased and read Pasi Sahlberg’s Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Excellent – well worth a read if you are interested in education. The main conclusion would be that there would have to be quite a cultural change in order to achieve a major transformation in the education system in Canada, USA and many other countries. Private schools, charter schools and the like are not the answer.

my architect cousin


Seppo Mykrä has designed projects such as the Hotel Oscar expansion shown in the background, where hands were even wrung.
captured from Warkauden Lehti

Very occasionally I browse the online newspaper from Varkaus, Finland, the city where I was born and where most of my father’s family came from and where many of my cousins still live. Imagine my stunned surprise last night when I was checking it out and found a photo and article about my cousin Seppo Mykrä. He has been the city’s architect for 40 years and now has an exhibition of photographs of some of his hundreds of designs in that city.

Here’s my translation of the article:
by Rauno Ylönen 4.8.2011
Architect Seppo Mykrä’s touch is strongly reflected in the city of Varkaus and its streetscape. 70-year-old Mykrä has designed hundreds of buildings for Varkaus in the past 40 years.

Some of these are on display as photographs in the Unknown Creator exhibition at the Varkaus library starting this Wednesday. The exhibition is divided into three parts: industrial buildings, residential buildings and public buildings.

Photography and exhibition design has been carried out by Seppo Mykrä’s granddaughter, Emma Luukkala, a student at the Tampere Art High School. We are still making the book of these photographs, Luukkala says.
Read more in Warkauden magazine on Thursday.

Unknown Creator – an exhibition of Seppo Mykrä’s architecture in Varkaus from 1972-2011 at the Varkaus library exhibition room August 31st.

Can you tell how proud I am of my cousin, who is my late father’s late sister’s son? I deeply wish I could be there to see this exhibition and all his lovely family and home. The last time we met was in 2002.

Now, just a few words about the curious name Varkaus or Warkaus about which we are often teased:

Oddly enough, ‘Varkaus’ translates to ‘theft’, even though it is not the reason for giving that name to the city. In old Finnish, the same word also meant strait, and this city is located in the lake district […] on straits between two parts of Lake Saimaa.

I’ve heard many different explanations for the name but this one is new to me and does make the most sense.

And, oh, I just remembered that it’s my father’s birthday today (as well as being special for a few others in our family). If he were alive he would be 91 years old, and very very proud of his nephew!

midsummer 2011

June 22, 2011 8:11 p.m

This stunning view from our back deck is the closest reminder for me this year of the midsummer bonfires and celebrations which we experienced long ago in Denmark, Sweden and Finland on a trip with our young family. Though the solstice occurred a few nights ago, in practice the actual celebrations can vary around the days closer to or on the weekend. Many Finns, for example, head out to their cottages at this time, often to begin their long summer vacation. Ah, those white nights…

Last weekend we introduced the Midsummer Festival at the Scandinavian Centre to our “English” daughter and granddaughters who are here for the summer. For some reason, I enjoyed our visit two years ago much more, but this was fun for the kids and even Elisa wrote about it – do read!

Being a favourite time of nostalgia for the Finn in me, I’ve written so many midsummer posts over my years of blogging that I won’t repeat myself, but if you are new here and interested, here they are in addition to the above links – enjoy:

summer solstice 2004
midsummer dreams 2006
solstice memories 2007
white nights 2008
the longest day 2010

Happy Midsummer’s or Midwinter, dear readers. May the season ahead be a good one for you.

Finnish rock art exhibition


I am delighted to have received an invitation to Ismo Luukkonen’s exhibition Marked on Rock – Photographs of Prehistoric Rock Paintings at the National Museum of Finland in Helsinki. The exhibition is open June 16th to September 18th, 2011. More information and a few photos here.

I know Ismo has photographed rock art in many countries so I queried about it and he confirmed to me that all the photos in this exhibit are of prehistoric rock paintings located around different areas of Finland. Do check out Ismo Luukkonen’s extensive website, especially the Finnish pictographs.

This is a subject close to my heart on many levels so I’m sad that I will not be able to be there for the opening and meet the photographer, nor is it likely that I’ll see the exhibition during its long run (unless the goddess of rock art waves a magic wand and a plane ticket in my direction).

My congratulations and best wishes to Ismo Luukkonen on this exhibition. I hope some of my Finnish readers and anyone else who may be in Helsinki will visit the exhibition and share impressions and photos!

Related: Previous posts about Ismo Luukkonen and his work in July 2004, February 2005, and most recently February 2011.

Steam of Life – a film


All weekend, our thoughts and conversations seemed to be mostly about saunas, Finnish saunas of all kinds, and Finnish men in saunas, all because of seeing a memorable and moving documentary film that drew on the full gamut of emotions from laughter to tears. Steam of Life was presented by DOXA at the Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver this past Friday evening.

Finnish men don’t usually open up about much, it’s generally thought, as they don’t like to speak about feelings. But in the sauna, it’s different. Intimacies are revealed in its soft steam, by men who sit there quietly and give voice to the sorrows of their lives.

In Miesten vuoro / Steam of Life, a full-length documentary film by two directors, Joonas Berghäll and Mika Hotakainen which premiered in March 2010, Finnish men both talk and weep. – The Naked Truth, Books from Finland.

Steam of Life was selected as the Finnish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, but did not make the final shortlist. It is the first documentary to represent Finland at the Awards, according to wikipedia. (Check that site for links.)

Personally, I was very moved by just hearing the Finnish language itself (now that I rarely hear it) and seeing some familiar and beautiful scenes of the country, and of course the whole culture of the sauna, especially followed by swims in the lake when possible. The genuine deep emotions expressed by the men to each other in the quietness of the sauna were a revelation and sometimes moved all three of us (husband, youngest daughter and I) to near tears.

After the film, the DOXA folks set up a Skype video chat with Mika Hotakainen, one of the directors. He appeared on the big screen at 6:30 am Finland time, and though sleepy-eyed, he cheerfully and with infectious charm answered many interesting questions from the audience. One was about how the camera fared in the heat of the sauna: the camera had to be warmed for about an hour and a half along with the heating of the sauna (up to 180 F!) and the use of the zoom lens had to be avoided!

All the characters in the film are non-actors and spoke of real events and feelings in their lives. The shooting of each scene was usually done just once to maintain the authenticity of a documentary. The filming was done all over Finland and even Lapland. One lady asked (in Finnish, yay!) about what strange language was spoken in a certain scene – it was Saame.

It was acknowledged by the director and many in the audience that taking the sauna can be a spiritual experience. We really enjoyed this part of the program as much as we enjoyed the film.

We highly recommend seeing this if you get the opportunity, or get the DVD (not sure if it’s available in North America yet). It’s certainly been widely shown and highly acclaimed. Here is a good trailer at the official Finnish website, though only in Finnish. And here’s a local review by Katherine Monk for The Vancouver Sun (link since expired and removed).

Finally, you may be interested in my popular post about saunas from a few years ago. The photo above is a reposting from that article. Oh, and by the way, sauna is pronounced sow-nah, I’m a bit picky about that.



The other morning frost covered trees, shrubs, grass, even the glass on the skylights. Though not lovely frost ferns this time, its thawing looks like lace.


Outdoors I’m looking very closely at the frost on the deck railing.


and how it is thawing on the sunnier end….

Oh, I almost forgot Finland’s Independence Day today! Here’s the perfect music to honour it. Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää!

old Finnish jewelry


Somewhat related to my ‘textures of home’ series, but much more personal, featured here are some very old Finnish pendants and a brooch that have been passed on to me. These styles were and still are commonly worn with the Finnish national costumes.

I don’t know if these were made by Kalevala Koru but I rather think so for the company’s designs are based on replicas of ancient Iron Age jewelry discovered in Finland and Scandinavia by archaeologists. I’ve just learned a bit more about the company’s fascinating history and that it’s fully owned by women in Finland. Some of you may know the name Kalevala comes from the Finnish national epic poem.

These may not be priceless precious jewels but I love that these pieces are made of local heavy brass or bronze and are not shiny and new looking like some of my newer Kalevala Koru pieces (though I love those too). To me they feel full of history and ancient culture as well as being family heirlooms. I do wear these often particularly the dark pendant which is my favourite.

Added January 25th, 2012: Thanks to a nice surprise — an article about a 1941 Kalevala Koru catalogue at the Finnish Kansanperinne-blogi (ancient traditions blog), I’m now able to identify two of the pendants, second from the left and the far right one, as being Kalevala Koru creations, and the date! I’m so very pleased to know this.

Added December 30th, 2012: While looking for something else on my blog, I came across this photo of my mother, wearing the pendant on the right. Read the story behind it in the comments.

the longest day


Disappointingly dull cloudy weather today for the solstice. Nevertheless I wax nostalgic at this time of year, every year, so I reread my past posts about this very important, ancient Nordic tradition. My favourites, if you care to visit them, are:

a midsummer fest, 2009
white nights, 2008
midsummer nights, 2005

And, if you have wondered: why it’s the longest day of the year–but not the hottest.
Hauskaa Juhannusta! Happy solstice, all!

Added June 23rd, 2010:I knew that Midsummer is, or used to be, an official holiday in some countries, but did not know that it is also a public holiday in Quebec!

In Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Quebec (Canada), the traditional Midsummer day, June 24, is a public holiday. So it was formerly also in Sweden and Finland, but in these countries it was, in the 1950s, moved to the Saturday between June 20 and June 26. ….from Wikipedia

Here is a notice from Helsingin Sanomat about what will happen in Finland as the country starts to shut down:

Just a brief advance warning for anyone who is unaware of it, but this coming weekend signals the Midsummer celebrations in Finland, and will bring with it certain restrictions on shop opening-hours and transport schedules, as well as marking the start of the summer vacation season for many.

P.S. Just in case anyone is wondering why the Summer Solstice is being celebrated a bit late, the concept of Midsummer in Finland is associated with the saint’s day of St. John the Baptist (hence Juhannus, the Finnish name for it), and since 1955 the holiday has always been celebrated on a Saturday falling between June 20th and June 26th. Earlier it was held on June 24th, or St. John’s Day.

Midsummer Eve is quite as important as the day itself, and given the long distances often involved in travelling to the summer cottage a good many people choose to take Thursday off as well. Traffic volumes on Thursday and Friday reach an annual peak, and long lines are to be expected at traditional bottlenecks.

The return on Sunday is not usually so congested on the roads, as many people take this weekend as the starting-signal for their summer holidays and stay in the countryside for the duration.

Sadly, Midsummer also involves a good deal of drinking, and given the amount of water in this country, it also often sees a spike in the number of accidental drownings, either through people falling out of boats or overestimating their swimming prowess in waters that can still be quite chilly at this time of year. Please take care.

So there you go, the 21st version of a pagan-Christian blend celebration!