Finland is known for its many lakes, breathtaking scenery, northern lights, and reindeer. If you have Finnish ancestry, the culture and customs of Finland can create lasting impressions and important family connections.
If you were to ask a Finn what it’s like to be Finnish, they would probably use the term “sisu”—a term that is ingrained and understood, but hard to translate. Sisu is having great courage or persistence in the face of opposition, and the tenacity to follow through, in spite of circumstances. It may explain why Finns have a strong national pride and value their freedom while granting tolerance and equality to those who have differing lifestyles and values.
Despite many myths that Finns are reticent or shy, most Finns are friendly, open, and genuine, though perhaps reserved until they become comfortable socially. Typically, when speaking about themselves, Finns may joke around and say the opposite of what they really mean. Their unassuming and sometimes self-deprecating sense of humor is meant to put others at ease. They don’t take things too seriously.
Festivals, Food, and Families
Many of Finland’s observances center around holidays and holiday food, while others revolve around religious events or family occasions.
During (Juhannus), the Finnish Midsummer, many Finns travel to summer cottages (mokki) on one of Finland’s many lakes or to the seashore to celebrate the year’s longest days, when the sun hardly sets. Family gatherings include bonfires, spending time together and visiting the sauna, and eating sausages (nakki), new potatoes, and bread.
The Finnish yuletide or Christmas (Joulu) follows traditions that include candles, Christmas trees, and advent calendars. It’s common to sing Christmas carols at church and watch the “Peace of Christmas” broadcast at noon on Christmas Eve day. Gift giving and a visit from Father Christmas (Joulupukki) occur on Christmas Eve. Families may also take a relaxing trip to the sauna on Christmas Eve day. A traditional Christmas meal includes ham, rutabaga casserole, beetroot salad, and traditional pinwheel pastries filled with apricot or plum jam. Holidays end after St. Stephen’s Day (Tapaninpäivä), on December 26.
Easter (Pääsiäinen) is a combination of Christian and pagan customs. A week before Easter on Palm Sunday or Holy Saturday, children dress up as witches (noita) and go from door to door. The children give away willow twigs adorned with ribbons, feathers, and other decorations in exchange for sweets, Easter eggs, or coins. Mämmi pudding is a traditional Finnish Easter dessert.
Shrovetide (Laskianen) is a festive time leading up to Lent. People eat laskiaispulla, buns filled with almond paste or jam, and a slow-simmered split pea soup. It is a time for winter sports such as sled riding, piling on a toboggan, or taking to the slopes, followed by a trip to the sauna.
Vappu, or May Day, is a national holiday. Families come together from all over Finland for a street carnival on the eve of May Day, which marks the beginning of spring. It is a time to picnic and party while donning your graduation cap and sashaying about town. Treats for these celebrations include munkki, a type of donut sprinkled with sugar, and tippaleipä, a funnel cake cooked in hot oil.
Independence Day, on December 6, is a day to commemorate war veterans and those who died fighting for Finland’s independence. It is common for families to gather at home or meet for a meal in a restaurant. Young people take part in a torchlight procession, churches have special services, and candles are placed in windowsills.
Finland’s most popular sweet doesn’t need a holiday. It is literally salty licorice (Salmiakki). Finns love the flavor and put it in just about anything. Karelian pastries (Karjalan piirakka) are also a staple for just about any occasion. They are oval-shaped pastries filled with rice, potato, or carrot and usually topped with egg butter.
Sauna, a type of dry-steam bath, defines what it is to be truly Finnish. Nowhere else does a sauna have mainstream integration in everyday life. To be invited to join a host in a sauna is a supreme compliment that indicates acceptance. Almost every home has a sauna, and an apartment building often has a shared sauna.
One addition to the sauna in Finland that you won’t find elsewhere is a bundle of birch leaves, which a person traditionally taps or brushes against the skin while in the sauna to improve circulation. This practice is both relaxing and refreshing.
Your Finnish Heritage
By learning the culture and traditions of your Finnish ancestors, you can learn where you come from and ways that you can connect with your ancestors—and how they connect to you. If you know or suspect you have Finnish roots, find your way to FamilySearch.org. Sign in with a free FamilySearch account, and discover your ancestors in excellent Finnish historical record collections.