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The Most Cheerful Finnish Christmas Songs

Quite some time ago I wrote an article about the most depressing Finnish Christmas songs. This is a sort of continuation for that article if you will, yet this time we are going to take a look at the most cheerful Finnish tunes and comforting messages that can be found in some rather well-known Christmas tunes!

I happened to run across an article in an evening paper from a couple of years ago, which reported that a Swedish newspaper had laughed at somber Finnish Christmas traditions. Among them, of course, the depressing Christmas “carols”, which are so dear to us Finns. From there, I got an idea: What about the cheerful Finnish songs? Surely we are able to write some merry tunes and jolly words too? The world of Christmas music is always interesting to dive in. Its content is often taken for granted and most people probably don’t stop to think how varied the musical Christmas culture is, especially in Finland.

Here is a short list of some of the most cheerful Finnish Christmas songs and reasons why I think they deserved a spot on the list. Note that only Finnish compositions and Finnish folk tunes are allowed on the list, so Santa Claus is Not Coming to Town today, nor is there going to be any Nisse-Polkka this time, sorry!

On Hanget Korkeat Nietokset

”The Snowbanks are High”

Hear me out! We need to have some classic Sibelius on the list, and personally I think this is one of the most cheerful Finnish classics out there. In the house of Jean Sibelius (1865–1957), Christmas was traditionally celebrated with joyful singing and playing, not with gloomy devotion. The song was written by the legendary Finnish composer around 1901.

The lyrics are by Vilkku Joukahainen (1879–1929), who is a very special case among our Christmas poets. In his book about Finnish Christmas classics, Markus Similä assumes that Joukahainen, young student at the time, couldn’t have sent his lyrics to a renowned artist like Sibelius, so it is more likely that Sibelius found the poem in a printed publication. Joukahainen wasn’t merely a poet though, he would later become a teacher, a congressman in the first Finnish parliament and the Minister of the Interior! Still he is mostly remembered for a short poem he wrote during his years as a seminary student.

My favourite part in the lyrics can be heard towards the end of the second verse “…ja surun särkevi entisen/ mi kasvoi elämän teillä.” We are allowed to joyfully sing and dance for now, and the past sorrows that life has thrown in our way are triumphed over by the moment’s happiness.

No, onkos tullut kesä

“Well is it the summer that has come”

The name of this Christmas poem could also be freely translated something along the line “Well if it isn’t summer”. This is a Finnish folk tune, collected from Liperi in North Karelia in the 19th century. Interestingly, the same melody used to accompany “Karjalaisten laulu”, a famous province song from Northern Karjala, today sang to the melody composed by P. J. Hannikainen (who has also written many well-known Christmas songs, such as Joulupukki, joulupukki – Finland is a small country, after all).

The lyrics were written on demand to accompany the melody, by teacher/poet J. H. Erkko (1849–1906) in 1883. It may be surprising at first to learn that almost all the classic Christmas poems were written by teachers of the Finnish folk school. However, outside ecclesiastic psalms, the Christmas songs were usually written for – and performed in – school’s Christmas parties in the 19th century. This is from where the tradition of singing and playing around the Christmas tree made it to the regular Finnish homes. Virtually every Finnish person knows how to sing this melody, and as the lyrics aren’t too explicitly religious, I assume this is a hit in pre-schools even today. “Even the old one becomes rejuvenated/ to play like a child/ and hunchback straightens/ so everyone is pleased.”

More songs: Oi terve, joulukuusi – a cheerful little Christmas song written by J. H. Erkko and P. J. Hannikainen.

Joulukirkkoon (a.k.a Kello löi jo viisi)

”To Christmas Church” (a.k.a “The Clock Struck Five Already”)

Another song that every Finnish person must be familiar with, yet it might be difficult to name the writers of this zippy piece! The poem Joulukirkkoon was written and published by folk school -teacher Immi Hellén (1861–1937) in 1898. Hellén has written so many well-known children’s songs that it is impossible to escape her work if you have spent even a short amount of your childhood in a Finnish kindergarten/pre-school. Joulukirkkoon describes the sleighride journey, as a pair of children are travelling to the Christmas morning mass. Few know this, but there are actually fourteen verses to the poem, not only the seven that are usually sang to the melody written by the nicknamed R. Raala.

R. Raala, real name Berndt Sarlin (1886–1971), was a tender looking fella who used to be a stage actor. He even co-starred with the legendary actress Ida Aalberg! Sarlin had to quit acting for the chicanery in the world of theater was too much for him, the sensitive artist he was – and he spent the rest of his life founding several interesting businesses. He composed 44 Christmas songs during his lifetime.

Rekiretki

“Sleighride”

This song is known as the other Rekiretki, the one by legendary composer Toivo Kärki, and is not to be confused with the another Rekiretki, admittedly bouncy translated piece by American composer Leroy Anderson. Kärki’s song and Reino Helismaa’s lyrics make up a song at least as cheerful as the American one, and later arrangements have even added some jazzy tunes and intro to the song. The song was first recorded in 1951.

Toivo Kärki (1915–1992) was one of the most famous Finnish music producers, arrangers and composers of popular music. He has approximately 1400 recorded compositions. Reino Helismaa (1913–1965) was (and still is) just as renowned and beloved as lyricists and artist, and the duo wrote countless songs together. Rekiretki is an example from their Christmas production. “Such a joyous moment one gets to live/ when making a brisk sleighride/ Stallion, try your best!/ Ring small bell ring/ the merry and funny tunes!”

More songs: Helkkää pienet tiu’ut – written by Kärki & Helismaa, was among my greatest favorites when I was a little kid!

Tule joulu kultainen

“Come Precious Christmas”

This beloved Christmas song was originally written for an advertisement! The poem was written for the customers of Finnish retailing co-op S-group. Seppo Mattila was the advertising manager to S-group in the 60’s. He wrote the poem that was later composed by Aarno Raninen (1944–2014), Finnish conductor, arranger and composer. The song was used in S-group’s ad films through the 70’s and many times after.

Despite its somewhat commercial background (or because of it?), the song elicits some kind of warm and tingly atmosphere, like the feeling of childhood Christmases! I am not going to lie; I get goosebumps when listening to the version by Finnish popular singer Seija Simola – the same version that was used in the commercials.

Hajamielinen joulupukki

”Absent-Minded Santa Claus”

Undoubtedly one of the most cheerful Christmas songs there is, I was a bit doubtful about the cheer quality of this song as a kid. The delicate and emotional child I was, I thought that it would be absolutely horrible if Santa Claus had gotten so senile that he would hand out the presents to wrong people! Obviously, the point of the song is that the confusion was caused by a practical joke (most likely arranged by the father mentioned in the song).

Diligent composer and conductor Jaakko Salo (1930-2002) arranged and composed especially film and theatrical music. He died tragically of a heart attack in Peacock Theater right before a premiere of a revue he was supposed to compose.

Author, actor, director and lyricist Jukka Virtanen, born in 1933, made numerous roles in well-known movies and tv, as well as wrote lyrics, tv-shows and advertisement films. He died of cancer in 2019.

At least for me, the one true and original version of the song is the one sang by Anna and Kirka, published in the 1970’s.

Ilouutinen

“Good Tidings”

As it seems, many of the most cheerful Christmas tunes are written about sleighrides or dancing around the Christmas tree. In the name of versatility, I wanted to include some Finnish gospel – a Christmas song genre that is definitely rare on these latitudes!

According to Reijo Pajamo, this is one of “the first new Christmas songs that has solidified it’s place among the classics”. Jaakko Löytty (b. 1955) is described as a gospel music’s cosmopolite. His musical cues come partly from Namibia and Senegal, and he has become something of an icon in certain circles in Finland. Those who have completed Finnish confirmation school have definitely sang his songs. Ilouutinen was written in 1973, and the song was, according to his own words, born in the middle of summer – another typical trope in Finnish Christmas classics! At first, Löytty wasn’t content with the lyrics of the chorus, for he intended to replace “aa, aa, aa” with actual words. Later he realized that the part sounds like a lullaby and accepted the lyrics as finished (Source: Jaakko Löytty kerho, Facebook).

There are several different versions of the song, from choral versions to heavy metal.

And Don’t Forget These!

Tulkoon joulu “May the Christmas come”, composition & lyrics by Pekka Simojoki

Laulu joulupukille “A Song for Santa Claus”, c. & l. by Paavo Sarkkama

Kolma yötä jouluun “Three Nights before Christmas”, c. & l. by Petter Ohls

Tule, joulu, uudestaan “Come, Christmas, once again”, c. by Kassu Halonen, l. by Vexi Salmi

Kukkurinmäen joulupolkka “Christmas polka at Kukkurinmäki”, c. by Kai Kaapo, l. by Kaisu Liuhala

Anna joulu ”Give, Christmas”, c. by Ari Oinonen, l. by Ilkka Vainio & Aappo I. Piippo

Pukki tietää “Santa Knows”, c. by Kim Kuusi, l. by Arto Tamminen & Kim Kuusi

 

 

More readings on Finnish Christmas carols (in Finnish):

Markus Similä: Arkihuolesi kaikki heitä – Rakkaimmat joululaulut ja niiden tekijät. Gummerus Kustannus Oy, 2002.

Reijo Pajamo: Joululaulujen kertomaa. REPALE-kustannus, 2011.

Liisa Enwald & Esko Karppanen: On ruusu putkahtunna – Kirjoituksia joululauluista. Ntamo, 2014.

 

Siiri Sinko

Helsinki '21

The author is a student of political history in the University of Helsinki. She is a sensible freak who enjoys the fine little details of life. Her interests and hobbies include history, music, visual arts, cartoons, national symbols and international competitions.
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