Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Christmas, the Finnish way

Tonight, just like many people in this small town of ours, I had two parties to attend. At about 630 PM I headed to the residence of the Ambassador of Finland nearby for a taste of Christmas celebrations the Finnish way.

The Ambassador of Finland and his family are really wonderful people. Both of his sons are friends of mine and they could not be more different.

One reminds me of a simple artist/ social worker, while the other is very much into stylish living and the great social scene of Manila. I like them both equally, and tonight I had great fun talking to both as they each tried to explain to me in his own way the cuisine and culture of Finland.


It was a very intimate party but with lots of important people attending. Madame prepared a lavish buffet of Finnish and Italian specialties since the family has ties to both countries, and one buffet was in the dining room while the other was in the garden. Unlike many embassy parties which are all a matter of ringing up a caterer or booking a venue, tonight's party was all home-cooked food personally prepared by Madame and her staff. This made it very special for me.

In Manila, where entertaining is a past time almost unequalled among a certain group of people (my second party tonight was at a neighbor's house, for instance, and she had the Mandarin Oriental cater by the pool), it's quite normal to ring up the caterers for a private party.

But in Finland, where things are more down-to-earth, catering is unheard of unless you're doing a corporate event. So all the wives prepare their own food for parties, and Madame was indeed giving us a true taste of a Finnish celebration.


The buffet had an assortment of herring, a salmon and rice pie, cannelloni, roasted ham, and all kinds of other goodies, as well as an entire table of very prettily laid out desserts. And of course, everything had to be downed either with vodka or with mulled spiced wine.


The moment I entered the residence, I was handed a cup of mulled spiced wine by Erik, one of the sons. Spiced wine, served warm, is the traditional holiday drink in certain parts of Europe and very much a part of the Christmas season.

The moment I took a sip, I remembered a pre-Christmas trip to Austria some years back, when I had cups of spiced wine at the Christmas markets. And tonight, boy, was that strong stuff. A couple of very grand ladies were talking quite merrily after two cups or so of the spiced wine.

Then as I was trying to decide what to take from the buffet, Kris, the other son of the ambassador, came up and strongly recommended I try a bit of each herring dish. There were three pots of pickled herring in front of me, each with a different sauce. "Of course you have to wash everything down with vodka," he told me, and he promptly poured me a shot.


The party was a lot of fun. But the other reason tonight was special was because the Finnish ambassador had prepared a re-enactment of the Festival of Santa Lucia, which is observed throughout much of Scandinavia on December 13.

Traditionally, the eldest daughter of each household approaches her parents in bed wearing a long white gown, with a wreath of lingonberry leaves in her hair. She holds a pot of coffee and some breakfast, and together with her sisters, they form a procession while singing Christmas carols. It's all very sweet and old-fashioned.

The parents arise and eat the breakfast served, and this officially begins Christmas.

Tonight, there was exactly this procession (but no breakfast), with a charming young girl leading it and the sons of the Ambassador of Iraq participating as well. It was so nice to get a taste of the Christmas spirit, the Finnish way.


Travelife Magazine's
Oct-Nov 2011 Issue


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