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Finnish Christmas traditions

The Finns really know how to celebrate the Christmas season. Here are a few more Finnish holiday traditions: Anna's Day: Dec. 9 is the day preparations for Christmas traditionally begin in earnest. People clean house and begin baking Christmas br...

The Finns really know how to celebrate the Christmas season. Here are a few more Finnish holiday traditions:

Anna's Day: Dec. 9 is the day preparations for Christmas traditionally begin in earnest. People clean house and begin baking Christmas bread and brewing the Christmas beer. The Christmas bread traditionally was not eaten at Christmas; instead, it was displayed on the Christmas table, then set aside until the beginning of the sowing season in the spring.

Christmas straw: Centuries ago, straw was spread over the floor at Christmas in most Nordic countries. The straw represented the manger in which the baby Jesus was born, and some believed the straw had magical powers that ensured the success of next year's harvest. Today, many people use decorations made of straw.

Christmas Eve: Celebrations begin at noon with the national radio and television broadcast of the Declaration of Christmas Peace. Afterward, people enjoy the traditional Christmas rice porridge. Each kettle of porridge contains one almond, and the person who finds the hidden almond in their bowl usually expects a very happy new year. Most Finns enjoy a sauna on Christmas Eve before sitting down to a Christmas dinner, and a visit from Santa Claus.

Because of busy holiday schedules in America, the Embarrass Finns lit their candles a little early, and in a nod to the wintry winds that can whip through the cemetery, they added the ice lanterns.

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Nevala was a part of those first celebrations, when people would gather at the nearby town hall, ride in a horse-drawn wagon to the cemetery and light the candles. She was the only one to remember matches to light the memorial candles that first year.

The lanterns can be a tricky business. Some years have been so frigid that the candles didn't want to stay lit. Other years, volunteers had to wade through knee-deep snow to reach the grave sites, and still others were so warm that most of the ice lanterns melted.

The practice died in Embarrass after a while. But in recent years it has been revived, partly due to the efforts of people such as Lehto. Since late November, she and her granddaughter have made 30 to 40 ice lanterns each night. Lehto thinks she made around 400, but some lanterns didn't survive the recent warm spell.

A small army of volunteers and 4-H club members gathered Saturday afternoon to distribute and light the lanterns, and as night fell, much of Embarrass came to the cemetery for a quiet, reflective visit.

Volunteers will light the ice candles again on Christmas Eve.

Roots run deep through this community. Many of the volunteers making fresh tracks through the cemetery on Saturday were related, and many had come from families that had lived in Embarrass since the town was born.

Howard Honkola passed among the snowy headstones, lighting candles with a well-used propane torch. Honkola knew well many of these graves. His grandfather, Johanness, was one of the original Embarrass Cemetery sextons.

The pair used to dig graves with the help of dynamite, and put rocks on coffins that wanted to float in the high-water part of the cemetery, Honkola said. He's a practical man, and said he doesn't much care for elaborate headstones, or even the serene beauty that settled on the cemetery as dusk fell.

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But the sight moved Honkola's wife, Mary. With the help of her grandchildren, she set out the 50 or so ice lanterns she had made this year.

"We have five generations buried here," and at least 30 family graves dot the smallish cemetery, Mary Honkola said.

"This is a good way to remember our loved ones during the holidays. It gives you a really special feeling to know that you're doing something for them, even if you can't do anything for them. They aren't forgotten."

Extra lanterns lined the roads leading to and through the small cemetery. As night fell, a stream of cars passed slowly by the hundreds of glowing orbs.

Dolly and her husband Bob made about 250 ice lanterns to place throughout the cemetery. They placed one on the grave of their infant son, Bruce. Mary Honkola left a lantern on the graves of her two young grandsons.

Not every grave flickered with light and warmth.

A set of crow tracks in the snow was the only adornment around John and Waisa Paivarinta's headstones, their names worn almost away after 80 years in the Embarrass Cemetery.

But most families had someone left to remember them.

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Town clerk Christine Mackai and her family are more recent arrivals in Embarrass; they moved to the community in 1997. Though she has no family buried there, she appreciates the love that goes into the new tradition.

"It puts things in order again," said Mackai, who on Saturday visited the lantern lit on her friend Dorothy Nevala's grave. Dorothy Nevala, a relative of Bob and Dolly Nevala, died last Christmas Eve.

"It's so elegant, so beautiful and simple," Mackai said. "You can get so caught up in all the holiday things, you forget what it's all supposed to be about -- it's about the warmth of being with your family."

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