Traditional Finnish Christmas foods

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Christmas is in a week and Christmas preparations are already on well on their way in Finnish homes. In this blog post, we take a look at traditional Finnish Christmas foods and give you a few recipes in a separate Finnish Christmas foods recipe booklet if you want to give them a try. 

Common traditional Finnish Christmas Foods

Traditionally the Finnish Christmas dinner starts with cold cuts: fish, usually herring, in different dressings and sauces, gravlax, roe, perhaps lutefix and/or smoked fish, and often boiled potatoes to go with the various fish dishes. 

The main meal includes different casseroles, rutabaga casserole, liver casserole, sweet-flavored potato casserole, and carrot casserole. It includes the Christmas ham and the rosolli salad (beetroot salad). The dinner is finished off with a variety of desserts: joulutorttu (the star-shaped pastries that have plum jam in the middle), Christmas cookies, different types of bundt cakes, etc. 

Rice porridge can be served as a dessert, but often it is eaten on Christmas morning or on the morning of Christmas Eve. 

Glögg, glogg, mulled wine, or gluhwein is familiar to many Europeans and it’s common also in Finland. It’s served everywhere on Christmas and for a few weeks before it. There’s no single recipe for glögg and you can choose whether to have it with alcohol or without. 

These days people may substitute the Christmas ham with turkey or leave it out altogether. In different areas of Finland, this spread of dishes might traditionally look a bit different. In general, though, the older dishes are still holding on quite tight. 

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The Finnish Christmas dinner still very traditional

Although many Finns these days supplement or substitute the traditional Finnish Christmas foods with more modern dishes, the more traditional ones still dominate the Finnish Christmas table. 

The German grocery store chain Lidl commissioned a survey on foods that Finns like to serve at Christmas. They conducted the survey in October 2018. Based on the survey, 82 % of Finnish Christmas tables still include Christmas ham, 64 % gravlax, 77 % rutabaga casserole, 77 % carrot casserole, 76 % included joulutorttu, and 70 % included the traditional Christmas cookies. 

The survey also found that about 40 % of Finns still prefer to have only the traditional dishes, although nearly 48 % like to have some variation or to eat something completely different. 

The traditional Finnish Christmas foods show regional variations in people’s preferences. The survey found that for example roe and shellfish are more common in the south, game meat in Lapland, and lutefisk in western Finland. In eastern Finland, Karelian hot pot is a common Christmas dish.  

Roots of traditional Finnish Christmas Foods

In our Halloween post, we already mentioned how some of the older kekri traditions are now part of Christmas. The abundance of food and the (near) over-eating that happens at Christmas are remnants of kekri, which was a harvest celebration. But the combination of dishes that now form the traditional Finnish Christmas dinner is about a hundred years old. Some of the individual parts of it can have older roots.

Rosolli or beetroot salad has its roots in southwest Finland where it donned the tables of the upper classes already in the 18th century. The current recipe varies a bit around Finland. In some areas it can still contain pickled herring, which was common early on. More common these days is to add pickled cucumbers, which suggests Russian influence on the dish. 

Christmas ham has a dominant role on many Finnish Christmas tables. Ham didn’t rise to prominence until the 20th century. Before that, there was more variation in the meats that were served at Christmas. For example, lamb was very common in the first decades of the 20th century. 

Some of the casseroles have their roots in the 19th century. The most common casserole back then was potato casserole.

One of the oldest traditional Finnish Christmas foods is rice porridge. Rice as an ingredient became more common in the late 19th century, but before that Christmas porridge was made out of rye, barley, or oats. 

Another very old Christmas food is lutefisk. In Finland, it was prepared from dried pike or zander, but elsewhere it was traditionally prepared from dried cod. This medieval fish stirs emotions in people, you either hate it or you love it.  

My Christmas Dinner

Christmas in our house means taking into consideration the preferences of those who’ll gather around our table. My family comes from the west coast of Finland while my husband’s family is from Helsinki with links to Häme (Tavastia) and Vyborg. Each of these families has their own must-haves, and then there’s me trying to change things a bit. 

I wasn’t a big fan of carrot or rutabaga casseroles before, but my mother-in-law’s recipes changed my mind. As some of my mother’s recipes, hers are quite old. Her carrot casserole recipe, for example, is from her grandmother who was born in 1900. My mother-in-law still makes these casseroles for the Christmas dinner every year. 

Although my family is firmly rooted in western and southwestern Finland, my family never had lutefisk (for which I am eternally grateful). The quintessential western Finnish dishes of rosolli and joululimppu (a particular type of bread), however, are part of our family traditions. So, we need to have those at Christmas. 

My husband’s family, and my father, really like gravlax so there’s always that. My mom doesn’t like gravlax, but she likes rainbow trout in mustard sauce so there always needs to be that as well. Both families like Christmas ham although they have different ways of serving it. Mine likes the ham with a mustard coating, his doesn’t.

I like trying out new fish recipes every year, but for a number of years now my favorite has been a particular whitefish recipe. We’ve included it in our recipe booklet. I usually do a number of fish dishes since both my father and my father-in-law like fish. Neither of them is particularly keen on trying new things, but I do sneak these new recipes in every year. Some have been hits, others not.

Some Christmas Recipes

We have published a small Christmas recipe booklet to go with this blog post. You can download the booklet here. It includes recipes for some of the dishes we mention here. It also includes dishes we didn’t talk about much.

Early next year we will be publishing a new tutorial. That’ll be on Finnish nature. One of the overarching themes of that tutorial is food. Thus the tutorial will be accompanied by a small recipe book that contains recipes for dishes that are based on ingredients that derive from Finnish nature. 

This is our last blog for this year. We’ll be taking next week off and will return again early next year. Hope you all have a wonderful holiday season. 

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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