Suomi/Africa
Perspectives from Africa,
engagement from Finland
 
 

Understanding Africa

Representing Africans

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Fireworks at Kansalaistori Square, Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Fireworks in Helsinki, to celebrate a century of Finnish independence (Photo: Finland 100)

Christmas in Uganda, from Finland

Every year, the last week of November sparks off the Christmas Season in my house, and that’s when we rally the kids round to locate the box with Christmas decorations, pile up the tinsel and start playing Christmas songs every evening at whatever volume we please. For us, it’s both a religious and a familial event; we are Christians and have been for five generations and counting, and the season with its holiday and spirit of geniality and goodwill is the topping on the cake of family gatherings that we consume almost every weekend of the regular year.

So, while planning this year’s Christmas week calendar, I got down to compile our annual Christmas Carols booklet and this year decided to throw in some additional facts about the songs so that the children could pick up extra learnings. Also, to disabuse them of the notions that make children in Africa sing of a ‘White Christmas’ and decorate their trees with bits of cotton wool to depict snow, as if a Christmas celebration without snow is not legitimate.

Mistaken identityKorvatunturi, where the Finnish Ambassador known as Santa Claus lives...

I have objected to Christmas, regarding it as yet another colonial import from the time I gained my own national consciousness as a young child, even though Christianity as a concept clearly was. My argument along the way took the form that because we had now become Christians ourselves it was no longer a British or French affair and we could adapt the religion and its components to our own traditional settings.

And we’ve done so fairly well, in Uganda, with a few of our own traditions, Christmas songs, meals and by shedding off a large measure of the irrelevant so we feel it as our very own rather than a colonial implant.

So, I was amused when just minutes into my Christmas Carols booklet compilation I started noticing bits of Christmas that we assumed were British but are actually not - they’re Finnish!

It started with the melody for the carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’, which is sung in English but - according to Wikipedia - is the story of Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia or Svatý Václav in Czech, who lived from 907–935:

"In 1853, English hymnwriter John Mason Neale wrote the "Wenceslas" lyrics, in collaboration with his music editor Thomas Helmore, and the carol first appeared in Carols for Christmas-Tide, 1853. Neale's lyrics were set to a tune based on a 13th-century spring carol "Tempus adest floridum" ("The time is near for flowering") first published in the 1582 Finnish song collection Piae Cantiones.”

So, this melody - one of my favourite (they all are, to be honest) traditionals - is actually Finnish in origin!

A few seconds later it became obvious to me that another popular Christmas song had come from Finland - 'Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ could have no other origin because where else in the world does one find reindeer?

Searching for Santa

It tickled me to recall that on my first and last visit to Finland I had actually gotten to eat some reindeer meat and promised myself that one day I would go up to Lapland to see some live reindeer if I ever got to visit again. But, then, I started wondering - if reindeer were Finnish, then…wasn’t Santa Claus bound to be…?

I headed straight for Google which confirmed that his home is actually in Finnish Lapland in a mountain called Korvatunturi (don’t tell my kids just yet!). Apparently, he is even an ‘Ambassador' of Finland, and has a real Post Office box with an address (Santa Claus’ Main Post Office, Santa’s Workshop Village, 96930 ARCTIC CIRCLE.) Last year, over 500,000 letters, cards and parcels were sent to this mailbox from 198 countries worldwide.

The Finns are so serious about this that it actually appears on the main post office website and works so well for their tourism that, again, 500,000 people actually visit the Santa Claus workshop and Main Post Office each year.

So I’m thinking that when I do decided to take the children off somewhere to experience a White Christmas, perhaps next year, I could increase that number by at least five, since my destination is more likely to be Finland than England. 

Simon Kaheru