Finnish culture isn't completely without its harvest festivals, though. In older times Kekri was the last day of the year, a time to celebrate the harvest before battening down the hatches for a long winter. Some of its traditions have been rolled into Joulu/Christmas celebrations or are celebrated on the New Year of the current calendar, but Kekri was originally celebrated on the same days as other European harvest festivals - the end of October and the beginning of November. And so, amateur folklore junkie that I am, I tagged along with my roommate to the Kekri feast organized by the Finnish folk religion organization, Taivannaula. As traditional dress is encouraged at these events, I was glad to have my Viking age garb with me, and because I wasn't sure what I was in for, picked up a cheap sleeping bag for 4 euros at the local Salvation Army store.
The location of the celebration was a cabin camping area in the southern part of Seitseminen National Park, northwest of Tampere. The area is surrounded by protected wildlife areas with old-growth forest, something quite rare in southern Finland. In order to get there Christine and I had to take a bus from the center of Turku to someplace about an hour north, only to be picked up by car for another two-hour drive. We were following the directions from a GPS navigator that took us from paved roads to a dirt road that became smaller and smaller as we went, eventually becoming a railroad maintenance path barely wide enough to accommodate the car! It was quite a harrowing off-road adventure, given that it was completely dark and we had nothing but a completely insane GPS device leading the way, but we arrived safely in time to claim a bed and unpack a bit. The cabin itself was a three-room wooden building with bunk beds along the walls, fireplaces in each room, and solar-panel lights that we opted to conserve in favor of candle and fireplace lighting. One room was the kitchen, with a wood stove and sink but no faucet (no plumbing: water was pumped by hand outside) , one room was the main living room with a huge table that managed to accommodate all 23 of us for the feast, and one room that was a bedroom with a smaller table. Each room had its own fireplace and plenty of windows for a view of the forest. There was one building outside for chopping wood, an outhouse, and a huge sauna building, also entirely wood-fueled. In the middle of all the buildings was a campfire area and some benches. A line of small candles along the paths between the different buildings lit the way after dark. The beds themselves included pillows and thick heavy blankets, and though we were told we only needed to bring sheets, I was happy to have my ghetto sleeping bag with me. When it got chilly at night we lit the fireplaces, and even the next morning it was still quite toasty - Christine remarked that the wooden building held in heat better than our modern student apartment, and I had to agree. And the atmosphere was much cozier. While I'm happy to return to my electricity and flush toilets, I could easily spend a couple of weeks out at such a cabin.
Friday night most people were still arriving, but there was some socializing as well. Everyone greeted everyone else with hugs all around, which was unusual for me because, well, Finns are not usually the "hugs all around" kind of people. I took a liking to them right away. Several others had either Viking age garb as well, or more traditional Finnish clothing like lapikkaat and vests with white buttoned shirts. I had brought my array of traditional Finnish instruments, and there was much singing and playing of drums, kanteles, mouth harps, and my jouhikko (the envy of just about everyone else). Probably the coolest part of Friday was playing a couple of tunes on my jouhikko, only to be joined by a drummer and some spontaneous singing that was somehow in the same rhythm I was playing. I had a blast just jamming with people! Later that night was sauna time, with the wonderful thick steam from the wood sauna, and old fashioned bathing with birch twigs and washing yourself with a ladle and bucket. Afterwards I was relaxed enough to fall directly asleep upon my return to the cabin, to the sounds of singing coming from the main room, light from the fireplace flickering on the wall, and the smell of wood smoke hanging in the air.
Next morning I awoke to the sounds of yet more people arriving, and more importantly, porridge on the stove! My stomach reminded me that I hadn't had dinner the night before and propelled me into the kitchen for some rye porridge with sugar, milk, and cloudberry jam. In the main room a shrine to peoples' ancestors and dead relatives had been set up with photographs and small objects that people had inherited from their families. Christine brought a picture of her Finnish grandmother from Fairport Harbor and I had some printouts of my grandparents; my grandmother who passed away last year around this time, and my grandfather, who had passed away just the previous day. The end of October has become a particularly reflective time for me when it comes to remembering my dead relatives, because it seems that each year there's a new name on the roster. I added the photos to the shrine and lit a couple of candles for them. Most of Saturday was spent preparing the feast, except for a moment when we heard some knocking from the outside of the walls and saw some smudged faces and funny hats at the windows - kekripukkis were out and about! This tradition comes from the days when the farmhands had their one vacation a year during Kekri, and would dress up in silly old clothes and go to the different houses demanding booze and being mischievous. They ran around goosing the women, and threatened to carry of the host of the household, even picking him up and carrying him to the door, until their demands for booze were met. Trick or treat, indeed! Finally their thirst was sated and they retreated to the sauna (where we found some of their clothing afterwards). Now it was time for some epic food. By the time everyone had settled in with their plates and silverware, there were 23 of us crammed in around the table. We all gave a short introduction of ourselves and where we were from - only me and Christine and another guy Anssi were representing Turku, but others had come from all over: Vaasa, Helsinki, Tampere, Eura, Kuopio, and even Oulu. There was a short solemn moment to memorialize the people represented on the altar that couldn't be there, and a plate of food prepared to represent the place where they would sit. Then the food started to come out... just from memory, here's a list of some of the dishes: veggie and lamb pies, mushroom pie, casseroles made from carrot, rutabaga, and potato, boiled eggs, roasted chicken, sausages, at least three kinds of homemade cheese, three kinds of bread, plum and lingonberry jam, cubed rutabagas (which I learned were also called "swedes", after some confusion about swedes being an important part of the Finnish diet!), and there was homemade sima and sahti to drink. Then there was dessert array: white chocolate truffle, berry pudding, cranberry fudge, and some cheesecake-like pastry. After that huge dinner everyone gathered around the campfire outside to sing the origin of fire, an excerpt from Kalevala, while the campfire was started, and then we all went into the sauna again. Beer was thrown on the sauna rocks, which smelled like burning bread, and vihtas were passed around for whoever felt like some invigorating self-flagellation. Later I brought my tar schnapps and kantele by the campfire and quietly played around with some melodies while everyone else chatted. The Kekri host was, as tradition demanded, given plenty to drink. Apparently if the host sways on his feet, so too the crops that year will sway in the wind. But of the host falls down, the crops will also fall, so we did our best to keep the guy on his feet! Once midnight came around, we celebrated the start of the new year with melting pieces of tin in the fireplace and then throwing the liquid blob into a bucket of cold water. The shapes you get from the tin are supposed to tell what the coming year will bring. Luckily everyone else seemed to know how to interpret what they were looking at, but supposedly I have some money coming my way. I sure hope so!
Sunday morning was rough. Some woke up and left early, since they had far to go, and the rest of us cleaned the place up, swept, collected bottled and cans, and did an unending flow of dishes. I really, really wanted to sleep until afternoon, but alas, it wasn't to be. However, before starting the long drive back to Turku, we did stop to take a nature path through some of the national forest to see some of the original, old-growth forest area. Dead trees still stood tall and mosses hung from the branches like beards. And during this time of year, the forest is really, truly silent - no noise from birds or chipmunks, only the sound of the branches high above and the sound of one's own breathing. Even the footsteps are absorbed by the thick carpet of moss that covers everything. After strolling around for an hour or so, the group exchanged hugs and went to our separate cars. I passed out for almost the entire trip back. Tonight, right now, actually, I'm missing a Turisas show down at Klubi, but there's really only so much partying one can do in a weekend and still wake up on Monday. There will be other chances to see them play, but this weekend was really special, and there's only a couple times a year I can enjoy a weekend like this.