, , ,

The long archival travels meant that nineteenth-century historians were occasionally forced to spend Christmas on the road. Especially the younger scholars who had not yet established their own family often found themselves alone abroad during the holiday season. Inevitably their thoughts drifted to home where their families, relatives and friends gathered to enjoy the Christmas meal and the warm fuzzy feeling that the ideal family-centered middle class Christmas radiated. In conventional travel writing there is indeed a peek of homesickness and melancholy in texts written around the Christmas time: the authors recount their loneliness and the sense of being an outsider in the midst of foreign holiday traditions. The nostalgic childhood family-Christmases stood in stark contrast to the unfamiliar traditions of foreign countries and historians longed both to home and to archives which remained closed for days during the holiday season. Without the daily research routines and favorite Christmas treats, the season was not so jolly. To relieve the gloominess, historians sought the company of their compatriots so they could create a bit of the familiar holiday feeling even abroad. Let the sisters Liisi and Kalle Karttunen tell how the members of the Finnish historical expedition celebrated Christmases in Rome around 1910.

Liisi and Kalle spent many Christmases in Rome together with numerous Finnish scholars, artists and writers. Although they never felt that they were alone in Rome amidst this lively community of their fellow countrymen, each year the holiday season made them long for the warmth of the family Christmas dinners. The smoked ham, sausages, pastries, porridge and home-brewed beer – not to mention snow and the early morning sleigh rides to a local church – were depicted in detail in the letters they sent to their family for Christmas. Some of these cherished traditions they hoped to replicate in Rome, but the white Christmas was – understandably – never reproduced in Rome, where, to Kalle’s astonishment, flowers bloomed, trees were pregnant with lemons and the sun shone brightly even in December.

A Christmas tree proved to be a yearly challenge for the Finnish colony. They saw considerable trouble to find a perfect tree to create the holiday feeling. Unfortunately, Christmas tree did not play a major role in Italian Christmas traditions and therefore the offering of the trees was slim. The trees that were sold at Piazza di Spagna had nothing to do with the picture-perfect Finnish trees that adorned the Christmas cards and idealized imagery of a middle class family Christmas. But since a Christmas tree was a crucial element in Finnish Christmas customs, the Finns made best out of whatever tree they could find for their festivities.

Joining a Christmas morning church service was one of most cherished Christmas traditions in Finland, but in Rome the church had a less central role in the Christmas traditions of the local Finnish community. There are only a few brief remarks in Liisi’s letters that indicate that they sometimes joined the Christmas night mass. This is striking because otherwise she closely followed the traditions of the Catholic Church and participated in many other annual services and celebrations. Of course this does not necessarily mean that she completely abandoned the Christmas church tradition during her Italian years, but it might hint that the focus of her Christmas traditions shifted from church to the more quotidian elements of the holiday celebrations when she was far away from home and the familiar parish where her father had served as a curate. The local churches, the Roman Catholic mass and the strange congregation could not offer her the same emotional comfort than her childhood church had provided.

Food was of course essential for celebrating Christmas, but preparing a traditional Finnish Christmas dinner in Rome was not without its particular difficulties either. In addition to the home-brewed beer, the Karttunen family had enjoyed Chianti and Orvieto wines during their Christmas dinners. Italian wines had been a delicacy and a rarity in a Finnish farmhouse and they had highlighted the distinctness of a Christmas meal. In Italy, as Kalle soon discovered, the same wines cost hardly a thing and were served on every meal. Their specialty soon wore out and they lost their meaning as markers of a special dinner. Because Liisi, Kalle and the other members of the expedition lived in Rome on a tight budget, they could afford the cheap wines, but the expensive Christmas delicacies were usually beyond their reach. One year, Kalle wrote to home, half-jokingly, how the expedition was going to treat itself during the Christmas and purchase “one extra herring” (perhaps a sardine?). Because many of the Nordic delicacies were not even available in Rome, the Christmas meals consisted of local dishes and adaptations of Finnish recipes. The local wines and delicacies such as mandarins, raisins and dates that were luxuries in Finland but freely available in Rome, gave a festive flair to the Finnish-Italian Christmas dinner.

The Roman Christmases of the Karttunen sisters were spent with ever-changing members of the local Finnish community and with a mix of Italian and Finnish traditions. Although the community was often tight as a family in both good and bad, during the holiday season it could not quite replace the family and relatives in Finland. Liisi and Kalle enjoyed the Christmas feasts in Rome, but the season was always underpinned with a nagging feeling of homesickness and longing for the perfect childhood family Christmas at the family’s estate in Kitee. Their experiences suggest that perhaps Christmas can be understood as a state of mind, but that the recognizable signs and symbols of familiar Christmas traditions make it easier to achieve the correct holiday mindset.

Season’s Greetings with all good wishes for the New Year



The Liisi Karttunen Papers, National Archive of Finland

The Kalle Karttunen Papers, The Provincial Archives of Mikkeli