Finland’s carol tradition

© Reijo Pajamo

Carols have been sung ever since the birth of Christ. The oldest Christmas carol in the world is regarded as Gloria in excelsis Deo – Glory to God in the highest, said in the Gospel to have been sung by the angels. A Christmas carol tradition proper did not, however, emerge until the Middle Ages, when people began noting down the ancient songs associated with the Nativity. Mystery plays in the form of tableaus on the themes of the Nativity had been performed in Italy from the 8th century onwards, but no carols have been preserved from that era.

Christmas used not to be such a popular religious feast as it is today, being overshadowed by two others: Easter and Whitsun. It was St Francis of Assisi (1182–1228) who raised its status, introducing such elements as the crib. Back in early times, the Christmas traditions both in Finland and elsewhere displayed certain pan-European features, but before long, each country developed its own tradition and carols – as did Finland.

The Piae Cantiones tradition

Representing the earliest Finnish Christmas tradition are the medieval Piae Cantiones songs in Latin: the Devout Ecclesiastical and School Songs of the Old Bishops first published in Greifswald in 1582. Most of the songs in the collection were attached to the three great feasts in the church year: Christmas, Easter and Whitsun. In time, the songs for Christmas became so popular that they were included in the Finnish Hymnbook.

The Piae Cantiones were sung both in school singing lessons and at church events, at school festivals and when bearing Christmas greetings to local persons of note. They also featured large when the young scholars toured the parish collecting money to finance their studies. Among the most popular Christmas songs were Ave maris stella, Dies est laetitiae, In dulci jubilo, Personent hodie, Psallat scholarum concio and Puer natus in Bethlehem.

The Piae Cantiones tradition continued in schools right up to the mid-19th century, when their use became less common both in school lessons and on festive occasions. One reason for the decline of the tradition was the dwindling status of Latin in schools. Whereas the Piae Cantiones edition of 1582 had 74 songs, the volume edited by Joh. Ingberg and published in 1900 had only ten. Inberg also supplied words in Swedish and Finnish alongside the Latin texts.

Christmas hymns

The second category of carols consists of Lutheran Christmas hymns, most of them originally in Latin or German. The roots of those in Latin stretch back to the vocal tradition of the early church and to the medieval songs. Examples of these are the hymn Veni Redemptor gentium (O Come, Redeemer of the Earth) composed by Bishop Ambrose of Milan, and Sinua, Jeesus, kiitämme (Jesus Christ, all Praise to Thee), which represents the medieval tradition of songs in verses each ending with the words Kyrie eleison (Lord, Have Mercy).

Most of Finland’s Christmas carols are very old, written as early as the 16th and 17th centuries. The best-known in Finland is Martin Luther’s hymn Enkeli taivaan lausui näin (An Angel of the Lord), which he wrote for his family’s Christmas celebrations in 1535. Other German Christmas hymns include Paul Gerhardt’s Nyt seimellesi seisahdan (O Jesus Christ, Thy Manger Is) and Philipp Nicolai’s Kas kirkas nyt kointähtönen (How Brightly Shines the Morning Star). This latter hymn is in the Epiphany section of the 1986 Finnish Hymn Book.

An example of more recent tradition is Tulemme, Jeesus, pienoises (Here Come Thy Little Ones, O Lord) by Hans Adolf Brorson, a Dane, that is specially mentioned as a children’s Christmas hymn in the 1938 Finnish Hymn Book. When the Finnish Hymn Book was updated from the 1970s onwards, some of the traditional Christmas carols were added to the Christmas hymn section. These included Ei valtaa, kultaa, loistoa (Not Power, nor Gold nor Glory), Juhlimaan tulkaa (O Come, All Ye Faithful), Maa on niin kaunis (The Earth is Beautiful) and Joulu riemukas (O Du Fröhliche/O Though Joyful).

Traditional Christmas carols

The Christmas carol tradition has its beginning in the song Still Nacht, heilige Nacht (Silent Night, Holy Night) born in the Austrian village of Oberndorf. Composed by Franz Gruber to words by Joseph Mohr, it quickly spread to other European countries and before long to Finland, where it first appeared in 1833 in a Finnish translation by G.O. Schöneman, a clergyman from Jyväskylä, in Vol. 2 of a collection (Suomalainen Lauluseppele) edited by E.A. Hagfors.

Many of the old Finnish carols are imports from abroad. Among the best known are, in addition to Silent Night, the Danish Maa on niin kaunis, the French Heinillä härkien kaukalon (Born in a Manger), and the English Nyt riemuiten tänne (O Come, All Ye Faithful). These are now in broad international circulation and still sung.

Another feature of Christmas carols is their use of folk tunes. O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree), for example, is sung to the tune of a well-known German student song. Many of the Finnish Christmas carols dating from the 19th century are also settings to a folk tune. The same applies to Joulu, joulu tullut on (Christmas, Christmas is Here), Joulupuu on rakennettu (The Christmas Tree) and No onkos tullut kesä (Is it Suddenly Summer?).

Christmas hymns were joined in the 19th century by secular carols; these would be sung on St Stephen’s (Boxing) Day, in particular. Their advent was influenced by the bourgeois Christmas customs modelled on those of Sweden and by the establishment in Finland of elementary schools and seminaries. Christmas began to be celebrated in a different way from before; hence the autumn term in schools ended with a festive occasion, Christmas trees complete with candles and decorations became common in homes, and Father Christmas visited homes and schools in person, handing out presents for the children. The much-loved Christmas carols, which the children learnt from school songbooks in their singing lessons, then did much to create a Christmas atmosphere.

A number of the Finnish Christmas carols were originally composed for the school Christmas or “tree festival”, which explains why the lyrics are so often by an elementary school teacher. These include Helmi Auvinen, J. H. Erkko, Immi Hellén and Olli Vuorinen (Berg), Vilkku Joukahainen, Elsa Koponen and Alpo Noponen.

Finland can take pride in the fact that many of its Christmas carols are by leading poets – Hilja Haahti, Huugo Jalkanen, Valter Juva, Viljo Kojo, Larin-Kyösti, L. Onerva and Sakari Topelius –  and composers – Karl Collan, P. J. Hannikainen, Ilmari Hannikainen, Heino Kaski, Uuno Klami, Armas Maasalo, Leevi Madetoja, Erkki Melartin, Juhani Pohjanmies, Jean Sibelius and Martti Turunen.

The first Christmas carol collections proper appeared in Finland in the late 19th century. Much of the credit for editing them goes to a Helsinki music teacher, Anna Sarlin, who published a number of volumes containing nearly 100 songs in all. Through her books, carols of Scandinavian origin also spread to Finland.

Attempts were made in the early 20th century to revive both the old carols and the mystery play tradition. In 1924, the National Theatre in Helsinki therefore staged a Christmas mystery play called Pyhä yö (Holy Night) written by Hugo Jalkanen. The idea had come from Ester Ståhlberg, wife of the Finnish President at the time. The proceeds from the performances went to a homeless children’s charity.

Finnish carol motifs

Typical Finnish Christmas carol motifs are the star of Bethlehem, the Three Wise Men, the infant Jesus, Joseph and Mary, the crib and stable, Christmas preparations, Christmas church, Christmas presents, the Christmas landscape, peace, Christmas foods, elves and Santa Claus, the excitement of the run-up to Christmas, and the message of Christmas and its application to everyday life. Yet the ritual sauna bath that is such an integral part of Christmas in Finland has not inspired songwriters.

In one respect the Finnish Christmas carols differ from those of, say, Central or Southern Europe: apart from reindeer and winter birds, animals seldom feature in our carols. A good contrast in this respect is, for example, Se aasi katseli kummissaan (literally: The Ass Looked on in Amazement), of Spanish origin, in a booklet published for use in Finnish churches in 2004. This describes how an ass, an ox and a mule watched in amazement as the infant Jesus was born in a manger. It also says that the shepherds did not, like the Three Kings, bring gold and myrrh but butter, cheese and corn.

Though each year brings new Christmas carols, few withstand the competition with the old ones. Some have, however, succeeded: Nyt taivaat avautuu (lyrics and music by Jaakko Löytty), Tulkoon joulu (lyrics and music by Pekka Simojoki), and Sydämeeni joulun teen (lyrics by Vexi Salmi and Kalervo “Kassu” Halonen). Though the traditional carols are firmly entrenched in our carol tradition, competitions have even been held to find new ones. The City of Nurmes has proclaimed itself European City of Carols and held several composition competitions on the initiative of Jouni Pirinen. The competition in 2000 was won by Hetkeksi hiljene maa (For a Moment the Earth is Silent) to lyrics by Toivo Hyyryläinen and music by Jouko Saari.

The Most Beautiful Christmas Carols

In the early 1970s, Martti Kauppinen, a deacon and music secretary of the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission, was trying to devise ways of activating parish musicians and organists. He therefore contacted the Hyvinkää parish organist, Matti Heroja, who said that for some years he had listened to a radio programmed called The World’s Most Beautiful Christmas Carols. The new Finnish event was thus named The Most Beautiful Christmas Carols. It would be held on three Advent Sundays and the proceeds from the sale of the accompanying sing-along booklet would go to missionary work.

The first such concert was held in December 1973, in 180 parishes. It got a warmer reception in the rural parishes than in the towns. But by the time ten years had passed, it had been adopted by all Finland’s Finnish- and Swedish-speaking parishes.

There were only six songs in the first booklet published for the event in 1973: Arkihuolesi kaikki heitä, Kaikki kansat riemuitkaa, Kautta tyynen, vienon yön, Kun maass’ on hanki, Lapsi seimen, lapsi taivaan and Maa on niin kaunis. The booklet was published in an edition of just over 40,000 copies. The number of songs has since varied between 25 and 30. Before long, details of the songs’ origins (lyrics, composer), were also added, and later the name of the title holder, because permission to publish the song had to be obtained from the owner.

The booklet now runs to much bigger editions, because corresponding events are nowadays held not only in the Nordic countries and other parts of Europe, but also in Canada and Australia and indeed on every continent. The concerts have become extremely popular with Finns living abroad. The fact that the Finnish booklet was last year printed in an edition of no fewer than 700,000 copies, for concerts that attracted about a million Finns in all, says something of its popularity.


The Christmas carol revival has clearly encouraged more Finns to join in singing together. No longer are they content with just the easy-listening music heard on radio, television and various instruments. They want to make music themselves – and above all by singing. Christmas carols are an important element of our national culture, of our communal Christmas tradition. In many churches, the service held at dusk on Christmas Eve has become more important even than worship on Christmas Day.


Reijo Pajamo: Joululaulujen kertomaa. Repale-Kustannus. Vantaa 2011.