Christmas tree: Made in JYU

Did you know that the Finnish Christmas tree tradition began in Jyväskylä?

Christmas traditions at the main campus

  • The university and its predecessor, the Teacher Training School, have held festive functions right before Christmas break since the late 1800s.
  • The festivities were held in the banquet hall of the Seminarium building, which is still in use today.
  • The downtown street of Hannikaisenkatu is named after the Teacher Training School’s music teacher and popular composer of Christmas songs, P. J. Hannikainen.

Art class attendees are busying away creating red decorations for the banquet hall. Music classes turn into endless rehearsals of Christmas songs. Everyone is working away, and the goal is the long-awaited school Christmas function, which marks the end of the school year and the start of the holidays.

This tradition is time-tested, but few know that it began at the University of Jyväskylä. The city’s Teacher Training School trained Finland’s very first primary school teachers. The teachers-to-be ended each fall semester with a festive function. These celebrations then spread throughout the country as the teachers graduated into schools of their own.

Christmas tree, rooted in Jyväskylä

Late 19th century Finns had no concept of a decorated Christmas tree, a tradition more widely known in other parts of Europe. At the Teacher Training School, however, the tree became an annual tradition. A large spruce was carried into the banquet hall and decorated. The festivities concentrated around this handsome centerpiece. For many students, this was their very first Christmas tree experience.

The tradition did not stop at the School. Graduated teachers started decorating trees with the pupils at their own schools. The Christmas tree also started making appearances in private homes, where it is now an integral part of Finnish Christmas celebrations.

Pioneers in song

Christmas songs were another important part of the teacher trainees’ end-of-year celebrations. Singing was considered an important facet of teacher training. At that time, however, Finnish Christmas songs were few and far between. This sparked the studious trainees to simply start making their own. Several famous Finnish Christmas carols were written and composed at the Jyväskylä teacher school.

The School’s music teacher, P. J. Hannikainen, was perhaps the most industrious songmaker. His most famous creation was “Joulupukki” (Santa Claus), a song intended to be sung during Santa’s visit. (Note: There are no chimney falls here; in Finland, Santa is in the habit of walking right through the front door!)

The Teacher Training School is also partly responsible for the tradition of Santa’s visit. Strangely-costumed creatures visiting homes during holiday times was common, but these visitors, such as the “kekri goat”, tended to be mean in nature. A gentle Santa visiting and bringing presents was a new twist. Much like the Christmas function, this tradition also soon left Jyväskylä and spread throughout Finland.

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Jyväskylä, Christmas City

Most people are not familiar with the role of Jyväskylä in spreading various Christmas traditions in Finland. This is, however, a fitting example of the university’s role as a national cultural ambassador. The spirit of the Teacher Training School festivities can still be seen in Christmas functions all around Finland. For these reasons and more, Jyväskylä could well be dubbed a Christmas City in its own right!