I’ve been on summer holidays this past month, traveling around to see friends and family in Europe. One of the trips took me back to my old home in Finland, where I got to attend the wedding of a friend. I’d never been to a Finnish wedding before, but it’s worth a couple of words because it’s just a little bit different than any other wedding I’ve seen. Most things were familiar, although everything was slightly askew. In an effort to prepare any foreigners that could find themselves in the same dress shoes as me, here are five notes on a Finnish wedding.
1. The song:
Finns have their own wedding march and it’s not great. Some serious groupthink has gone on in that country and it’s resulted in bride after bride marching down the aisle to a slightly grating tune. Unfortunately, YouTube doesn’t help prove my point. Erkki (yes, Erkki) Melartin’s march sounds fine when it’s filled out by full orchestra – though it is still a lot like something you’d expect to hear during the end credits of a Super Mario game – but when a lone Finnish organist is playing it slightly off-key, the experience is hard to digest.
And I swore I’d never again criticize a man named Erkki. Oh well, another New Year’s resolution down the tube.
2. The church, the Jesus, and the speed of it all:
Most Finns belong to the Lutheran Church. I myself have never been to a Lutheran wedding, being raised (and subsequently fallen out as) a Catholic.
I have to say, in spite of all the problems that Catholicism and I have had with each other over the years, and there have been many, I’ve got to give it up to The Church when it comes to aesthetics. I’m not used to sitting in a place of worship that’s in absence of monumental alters, gold-trimmed this-and-thats, and stained glass everything.
If the Catholic church is U2, than Finnish churches are Bon Iver. There is no extravagance in the presentation. There is no bragging. They’re as stripped down as it gets. I’ll do my best to paint a picture of the interior of a Lutheran church: A wooden room with nothing on the walls.
The second thing that caught me off guard was the sheer friendliness of their Jesus. He was smiling, standing on his own two feet, and looked pleasant and inviting, as if to say: Come with me, I won’t bite. As a Catholic, I’m not used to this. How are you supposed to scare the kids with such a friendly Jesus?
My Jesus had always been terrifying. Nails and spear holes, that sort of thing, which say: BAH! DO WHAT THIS GUY DOWN HERE SAYS OR THIS WILL BE YOU WHEN YOU DIE!
While Catholicism takes the decorative category, the Lutheran Church is lights out in the appealing Jesus department.
The final factor that struck me was the speed of it all. This is no long, drawn-out wedding. The Finnish tradition is fast and to the point. If the ceremony were any shorter, we’d be flirting with Vegas-wedding territory.
But I like that. Less crap, more party.
3. The midnight sun.
I’ve taken more than my fair share of shots against Finland. It’s cold, it’s dark, the culture is pretty homogeneous, and the hockey doesn’t have nearly enough jam for my Canadian palate. In spite of these projected shortcomings, I’ve always been told that Finland in the summer is a magical place. I found that to be true.
The nature is spectacular, I’ll consent to that fact. But it’s no more special than what one can find in North Ontario or Banff. What makes it special is the amount of time the sun is in the sky … Always.
Well, almost always. At least outside the Arctic circle. It gets dark, but not really. At 1 am you can still see illumination on the horizon, and soon enough the sun’s coming up. You never really get night.
If you want to go to sleep, this can be a bit of a problem. But, if you want to party, it’s bloody perfect.
Think about it – the night sky is at its darkest by 1 am. Grandma still hasn’t gone home by then. An hour later, some of the guests will be getting tired, but most of them are still going strong. And now the sun’s up – that great ball of fire is fuel for Finns.
The length of the day really does shed some light on the manic-depressive nature of Finnish people. Until recently, I’d only been to Finland in the winter months. During that time, I only ever saw a depressed people, myself included.
But, every yin has a yang and in the summertime the Finns feed off sunshine. I’ve never seen such craziness. They bounce through the streets as though daylight were an amphetamine.
4. The mosquitoes.
While there are many fantastic things about holding a reception on a Finnish lake, the flipside to this decision is that you have to battle the elements. Now, I personally don’t mind the barn toilets or the rain, but it’s the mosquitoes that you really have to look out for.
You’re going to want to bring a couple packs of cigarettes for the reception. If you’re not a smoker, you’re going to want to start, because the only way to combat the swarms of Finnish mosquitoes feasting on your arms and legs is to chain smoke. As soon as you put out your cigarette, you will be immediately surrounded by those pesky little insects. There is no way around this.
I saw a small dog just get carried away into the woods by those things …
5. Food & Drink
This one’s a good one.
Of course, every culture has it’s own traditions when it comes to food and Finnish weddings are no exception. A buffet-style spread is probably the most common set up – full of Finnish specialties like karjalanpiirakka, mooseballs, salmon, and kermaperunat. The booze will most likely be brought in from Estonia the week before and there is no shortage of coffee offered.
I’ll take a sidebar and dwell on the liquor thing for a moment. Only the Gulf of Finland separates Helsinki from Tallinn, so regular ferry service is offered between the two capitals. During these boat rides tax-free liquor is available for anyone willing to carry one, two, or seventeen cases of beer home. Since it’s so much cheaper than the heavily-taxed Finnish alcohol, most Finns will simply buy a ferry ticket, bring a dolly, and load up a weddings-worth of beer, wine, and spirits. It’s not easy to satiate the thirsts of more than a hundred Finns, so you better make sure you have enough. A couple trips to Estonia ensure that no one is left dry.
However, hands down, the best part of a Finnish wedding comes a few hours after dinner. They’ve derived a wonderful tradition that includes a buffet reprise, with a little something extra. In this case, it was the addition of grilled sausages. That’s right – you get a second crack at dinner and some more meat. After a few hours of drinking and dancing, it’s a nice way to guarantee that your guests are happy and fed. It also keeps Uncle Ville from passing out into the lake for a few more hours.