This weekend Jeff and I had a chance to see the yearly Ice Candle lighting just down the road from the B&B. Based on the traditions of the Finnish folks that settled the area and still live here, the ice candles are a lovely thing to see!
This yearly event involves the whole community pulling together to place ice candles in the local cemetery. On the day of the lighting, there’s coffee and treats at the town hall and a visit from Santa, while folks walk and drive through the cemetery throughout the afternoon and evening to see the lights.
While visiting the cemetery in the middle of the winter in what are usually sub zero temperatures might seem a bit unusual as a way to celebrate Christmas, remembering departed loved ones is a very old tradition, updated through the years as Finland gained independence and candles became more affordable for the general public.
Finnish Christmas Traditions
Christmas begins in Finland mid-day on Christmas Eve, when the Proclamation of Christmas Peace is read in a few of the oldest cities and broadcast across the country. This proclamation is based on legislation originating in the 13th century, which created harsher punishments for crimes committed on religious holidays like Christmas. Over the years, the proclomation evolved to caution people to behave well at Christmas. The Proclamation is read at noon on Christmas Eve day, accompanied by music and begins the holiday festivities.
The Ice Candles are a newer addition to a Finnish Christmas Eve, although plenty of sources mention pagan roots. Traditionally, part of the Christmas Eve Day festivities included a Christmas Eve sauna and a visit to the graves of loved ones at sunset. In the 1920’s, people began to light candles to leave on the graves. Some sources attribute the candles to honoring the soldiers who died to preserve Finnish independence, while other sources mention that candles became more widely affordable in the 20’s, likely due to industrialization.
While the candles might be new to the holidays, there are a lot of stories I found that talk about Christmas Eve being a time when Finnish customs and folk beliefs expected and welcomed the spirits of the dead into the home, setting a place for the departed at the dinner table on Christmas Eve. It was also believed by some that sprits of the ancestors would come to enjoy the sauna on Christmas Eve once the sun set.
Other important elements of a Finnish Christmas Eve include waiting for Joulupukki, or Santa Clause, who has the good grace to knock on the door rather than sneak down the chimney like his American counterpart. And of course, preparing for the traditional Christmas feast is a big part of the evening. The typical Finnish Christmas meal includes ham, rutabaga casserole, smoked whitefish and herring with sauces, lutefisk, liver pate, fruit soup and salad, breads, pastries and rice or prune pudding. Beverages included homemade beers and mulled wine, Christmas glögi, a drink made with red or white wine, a port, or currant wine, and a spice mixture with orange zest, ginger, cloves and cinnamon. Desserts include yuletide prune turnovers, piparkakut, joulutortut, gingerbread cookies, and korvapu-ustit, cinnamon buns. Raisin cakes, pastries, and braided coffee bread known as pulla are also popular.
Candle Lighting in Embarrass
Embarrass, where Northern Comfort is located, is one of the primary areas where Finnish people settled in the United States. The traditions and customs came along with the original homesteaders and are still part of our holiday celebrations here!
The Ice Candle lighting is one aspect of that. Every year, volunteers mold nearly 500 ice candles using two gallon buckets and a lot of people-power. An ice candle is basically a lantern formed by partially freezing a bucket of water and hollowing out the inside so that a candle can be placed inside the ice lantern. Families can pay a small fee to ensure their loved ones get a candle in the cemetery. The lanterns are lit midafternoon and the community gathers for cookies and a visit from Joulupukki. The timing of the custom is slightly changed for the Embarrass Ice Candle Lighting — rather than gathering on Christmas Eve, the candle lighting is normally the Saturday prior to Christmas.
The tradition is a lovely way for the community to remember loved ones and gather to celebrate the holidays. Start planning now for a holiday getaway next year to be a part of this unique experience.