The Finns, like the Estonians, have their main Christmas celebration on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. I grew up with this tradition as well, and I actually never envied my American friends waking up at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day to see their presents. The way my family did it, we’d go to church in the afternoon on Christmas Eve, return home to see that Santa had visited while we were gone, eat a giant dinner, open our gifts, then have dessert and play (and, when we were older, have a few drinks ;-)) late into the night. Christmas morning we’d sleep in and then have brunch with mimosas, completely relaxed.
With J’s family, the main festivities also fell on Christmas Eve. They don’t go to church, but they do have one tradition that is so beautiful that I have to tell you about it before I get to the food. Finns visit the graves of their loved ones on Christmas Eve and light candles, which they place in covered lanterns. When we arrived at the graveyard soon after sunset to pay our respects at the graves of J’s father’s family, the last light was fading and the place was illuminated by the light of hundreds of candles. It was breathtaking.
After we returned home, we were ready for dinner. First, though, came a round of cocktails– the White Lady, which J’s grandmother used to make for Christmas.
I can’t tell you what was in it, all I can tell you is that J’s dad mixed them rather strong :-). I can also tell you that those gorgeous glasses are made by Iittala.
I helped to prepare the first course of dinner, which was fish. Many, many different types of cold fish. J’s brother’s girlfriend was taking pieces of gravlax (salmon) and rolling them into what looked like flowers. My whitefish arrangement did not come out nearly as fancy, but luckily nobody seemed to mind.
The first course was kicked off with a vodka shot– my family does this too! I was happy to observe a familiar tradition. It wasn’t just any old vodka either, but Marskin ryyppy, a mildly flavored vodka named after Finland’s great military hero Mannerheim.
And then the fish– oh, the fish. Let me see if I can even remember everything we had. There was salmon (top) and whitefish, both raw; muikku, the fish you eat whole (below the white creamy stuff); two different kinds of herring, one in mustard sauce, one in tomato sauce (two bowls side-by-side); and some kind of roe in a mixture, topped with raw red onions. There was also bread, potatoes, and rosoli salad, which was a salad of potatoes, beets and some other things topped with unsweetened whipped cream.
I absolutely love fish, so having this spread before me was heaven. Seriously, I could have eaten just this stuff for Christmas dinner and been completely satisfied. However, I knew that there was more to come, so I tried a little of everything, had seconds of my favorites (the roe, OMG… I wished I could have eaten the entire bowl), and then sat back to wait for the main course and the star of Christmas dinner (which I’ll write about tomorrow!).