I was told before and after moving to Finland that the overall population of Helsinki was not as religious as the population of Indiana. So I wasn’t sure what I should expect of a Finnish Easter. I knew that from the beginning of March there were beautiful Easter displays in shop windows. Fazer, the major chocolate company of Finland and a major national obsession, had the most beautiful Easter display in their windows. It was full of chocolate (obviously) and colorful eggs and chickens and rabbits and bows and color and flowers. It filled me with hope of spring! Even when it was cold and snowy, I would look at the window of a flower shop and just pretend like it was a nice 50 degree day with sunshine and cheer!
Here at the Fazer shop (and really everywhere in Finland) they were selling what I thought were regular eggs. However, they were actually Fazer Mignon eggs! These beautiful Easter eggs are a strong Finnish Easter tradition. They are made by hand in the Finnish Fazer factory by cutting a small hole in the bottom of a real egg and then sucking out all of the egg and replacing it with chocolate/hazelnut/almond nougat inside the real eggshell. So, when you crack open what looks like a hard boiled egg you actually find a solid chocolate egg that tastes very much like solidified Nutella. I am bringing several of these home for my cousin’s children and I am going to tell them that this what all of the chickens lay in Finland…..Chocolate eggs!
So, while there is definitely a commercial side to Easter very similar to the U.S. with Easter Bunnies and chocolate and decorated eggs, it all seemed to me to be made of higher quality content. There was not a lot of flimsy cheap/ plastic looking Easter merchandise. It all seemed to be done with a little more artistry and reverence. Almost like they took the holiday a little more seriously. I found it refreshing. Then I found out that the entire city shuts down Friday through Monday for Easter and I was even more impressed. Very very few businesses and restaurants are open on Easter Weekend. These business are not just closed on Easter Sunday but also Good Friday (which they call Long Friday) and the Monday after Easter as well. Which is wonderful! Some other ex-pats have had a hard time with this somewhat inconvenient halt to the city and I suppose it was a little inconvenient. However, I loved the respect the holiday was given. And I planned for the holiday and bought some groceries ahead of time and it has been fine. I think the U.S. should reevaluate our priorities. Do we really need to shop/ go out to eat on holidays? Can we have just a few days a year where we stay in and be with family and do nothing? Perhaps we could all do with a little more “inconvenience” in our lives.
On Good Friday there is a tradition of having an Easter play of Jesus’ last night leading up to his crucifixion. Every year there is a different twist to the story and this year it was done in modern times. The disciples were all normal guys with common jobs from road construction worker, to police officer, to bus driver. I thought this was very fitting. Judas was a smooth looking businessman who betrayed Jesus for a briefcase of money. I showed up to the performance about 45 minutes early and I am so thankful for that. Even in the dark and the cold rain there were hundreds of people who showed up for the performance. However, if there is one thing I have learned about Finnish people it is that they do not let bad weather stop them from doing what they had planned on doing….if they did, they would never get anything done! As they say; “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” This I have found to be really true.
So, Thankfully I got there early and I got to stand in the front where I could see everything. This was particularly helpful because the entire thing was in Finnish. The production started at 9:30 at night in a park downtown. It was dark, rainy and ominous, which actually made me reflect on the darkness of the actual evening 2000 years ago. The performance began with a song and a dancing angel. The only word in the song I recognized was hosanna, and still it was moving and the dancing angel was captivating in a somber reflective way that brought me to tears. Then they told the story of the last supper, Judas’s betrayal, Peters betrayal and all of the events that happened in the garden of Gethsemane leading up to Jesus’ arrest. Somehow standing in the dark park in the middle of the night made it all seem so much more real. It was as if I really was in the garden of Gethsemane.
After Jesus’s arrest he was led by modern looking soldiers down the path right in front of me to the Courthouse. Then the large audience followed him on that path. We were guided along the way through the dark city by angels and drummers. Again, it was strange to be walking in the middle of the night with a giant crowd in the middle of usually busy streets. Everything was usually open and vibrant and glowing with light, but tonight it was somber and silent. The traffic had been redirected and the whole city seemed to be put on hold in order to focus on the meaning of Easter. Finally the long procession stopped in front the courthouse. Here they did the reenactment of Jesus’ trial with first the Sanhedrin and then with Pontius Pilot. Again, this was done with a modern twist and so it felt like a modern day game show where the crowd got to vote for the either Jesus or Barabbas to be released. Pontius Pilot tried to free Jesus but the crowd voted for the Barabbas who was dressed in an orange prison suit and who looked liked a mass murderer. After the trial, Jesus was given a cross and He, followed by the crowd of hundreds of people, was lead by police to the Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square. Here he was symbolically crucified next to two inmates. The play ended with him saying “It is Finished”. The lights went out and we were left to go home in the dark and the rain and in silence.
Although the cross is where “It was finished”, I left feeling so thankful that it did not end there! I am glad I knew, unlike those who where at the original Crucifixion 2000 years ago, that the story did not end with the cross but with an empty tomb! Yet on my long, cold walk home I couldn’t help but wonder at how dejected alone and confused Jesus’ followers must have felt that evening. However, we know the rest of the story! We know that Jesus defeated death! And because of that empty tomb we are all saved! What a glorious day! What a victory!
Saturday I attended a special Easter Bonfire at an open air museum on an island by Helsinki. This is where I found out about some interesting Eastern traditions that are very different than the US. For one thing, all of the children were dressed up as cute little witches with brooms and pointed hats and everything. It was like a weird combination of Easter Meets Halloween. I suppose this started as an Easter tradition on Palm Sunday, where the kids go from house to house waving palm branches and reciting poems and songs in exchange for chocolate eggs. This happens more in the country. This Bon-fire in Helsinki is a way for the kids to do that without going from house to house. They lit the bonfires at 6:30 and then the children got in a line in front of the microphone and took turns singing songs. It was really cute. I disappointed, however, to learn that only one or two of the dozens of songs sung had any religious connections. Another part of the fire is supposedly to scare away evil spirits and the bad winter weather. I suppose this did not happen as it started to snow and sleet on my walk home from the fire.
Sunday morning I woke up and had some Mämmi for breakfast. This is a traditional Finnish Easter dessert. It is made out of rye, water, molasses and salt. It takes several days to make as the rye bread has to soak for several days to get the uhem…beautiful texture. It is usually only had for Easter. It looks like brown goo, but tastes like soggy raisin bran cereal. It is served with cream and sugar. It isn’t bad. I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I need to eat it everyday or anything. I think once a year at Easter would be good enough. 🙂
Then I set out for church. I decided to try an large international church that was on the other end of Helsinki. So I took a tram and a metro and I finally arrived, but the doors were locked. Apparently the times listed on the website were wrong and I had missed the services. Thankfully, as I was standing there a very kind family came up to me and suggested a small church to me. They said the people were fantastic, but then warned me that it was not very traditional because it has guitars and drums and is non-denominational. The preacher went to school at Hillsong in Australia. And told me it was all the way over near Kampi. AND with every word they said my heart swelled! It was EXACTLY what I was praying for! It sounded just like the churches I had grown up with and it was RIGHT next to where I was living! God is just so good! So I found this new church and I instantly felt like I was home. It felt so right. I had attended a few other churches in the area, but they were Lutheran and felt really formal….plus they were in Finnish. I was lost. This service was run exactly the way I was use to in Indiana and they had headsets with English translation. I recognized all of the songs being sung and many of them were in English! Everyone was so welcoming and kind. I even won a prize during the sermon. After the service, everyone went upstairs for more Mämmi, and I got to meet a lot of the members. It was great. I have found my Finnish church home! I can’t wait to come back next Sunday! It has turned out to be a wonderful Easter!