Deciphering Finnish Wedding Traditions

Midlife Sentence | A Finnish Wedding

Two summers ago, Saara, who’d been our first exchange student nine years ago, visited with her beau, Joona. We did all the usual Idaho stuff to see if we could scare him off. We camped, set off fireworks in the street, made him drink cheap beer at a baseball game in a zillion-degree heat, and asked him all kinds of intrusive (to Finns) questions like “how was your flight?” and “did you sleep well?”

Anyway, we and the other members of Saara’s Boise circle failed to scare him off that week and – long story short – he proposed before breakfast on their last day in town, and then we all hugged (more intrusion), and sat down to pancakes.

Midlife Sentence | A Finnish Wedding

Later that same year, Saara sent me a locket with a small slip of paper inside asking if I would be a bridesmaid. Saara’s the kind of person who puts a lot of thought into things like that. The fact that she knows I am more of the kind of person who recruits bridesmaids over beer and still thought I would be suitable for the job tells you a little about the bond we have.

Ever since, I’d been trying to find some sort of comprehensive guide to Finnish weddings, not only because I didn’t want to miss some important duty as a member of my adopted daughter’s wedding party, but also because not too long after the bridesmaid request, Saara asked if I would also give the welcome speech at their reception.

This is a duty usually reserved for the Father of the Bride in a lot of different traditions, and her request knocked me flat, it was such a huge honor. No one could ever fill the shoes of Saara’s big, boisterous dad, Juhani, who didn’t have to speak your language to tell a good joke, and who would break into song just as soon as shake a stranger’s hand. Juhani didn’t exhibit a speck of that traditional, Finnish introversion. He never met a stranger, was completely unafraid of anything, and a ruthless tease as well as Saara’s most fierce champion. His sudden passing, just about this time last year, left a huge hole in the lives of everyone who loved him.

Saara and Joona’s wedding has been one of the focal points of our whole Scandinavian trip, and I rather thought when we arrived, we’d be put to work. But as I said, Saara is one of the most organized people I know. Finnish engagements typically last two or more years and they’d had plenty of time to prepare. I’ve had my dress in hand for almost a year, and I suspect I made Saara a little anxious by waiting until a little over a month ago to prepare my speech prepared and send it in to one of her other bridesmaids for translation.

So, by the time we arrived in Finland, there was a little less than a week to go before the wedding, but Saara was perfectly calm and everything was prepared. She and Joona were ready to spend the time entertaining us instead of dealing with last minute details.

While I was looking up Finnish wedding traditions, Saara was researching American ones. She arranged for a family dinner at her home Thursday evening before her big day, in lieu of the American tradition of the rehearsal dinner she thought we might be expecting. We had a nice evening with her mother, Joona’s parents and brother, where we ate deviled eggs and potato salad and shared memories of Juhani.

Friday night before the wedding, I spent the night at Saara’s house with her other bridesmaids. I may have expected a little bit of a bachelorette shindig, but Finn brides do their bacheloretting more in advance of the big day. I’m guessing Saara just wanted us all in one place (maybe I’m not the only one in her party with a tardiness problem?). We got to bed by around 11, and then rose early on Saturday to spend the morning at the salon, where we all got our big hair on.

I’d grabbed a tube of lipstick on the fly through a drugstore earlier, so I’d thought I was good to go with the cosmetics, but I decided to have my make-up done when I realized there was a very real danger of my looking like the sandwich delivery girl who accidentally wandered onto the Kings Landing set of a Game of Thrones shooting (it’s pretty much a fact of the universe that twenty-something Finnish girls are gorgeous. I know all their names, but also gave them my own in my head, like Daenerys and Ygritte).

After our pampering session, we gathered at the church to test our mics for a reading. Without a rehearsal, I wasn’t sure if I would know where I was supposed to be, and what might be different. Everyone seemed pretty laid back about the whole affair. But the church was so grand and we had big hair, so I’m pretty sure the laid back thing was a ruse. I’d already been told the traditional two count step down the aisle was an American tradition, and if we did that, we’d double the length of the ceremony. I peppered people with questions I’m sure were stupid. The rest of the gals assured me they’d give me cues as the where to stand and when to come and go and things would be fine. I could, they told me just “be like a sheep on a string.”

I decided to trust them, and hope that since we (mostly) all looked like movie stars, any awkwardness brought about by my not doing the right thing would be overlooked.

The reception was about a 30 minute drive from Pori, at the Vuojoki Mansion, a manor house dating back to the 16th century. People tell me my speech went well, although I’m sure they’d be too polite to wonder aloud why the sandwich delivery girl with the big hair on the GOT set was invited to speak.

Saara made a tremendous effort to make sure those of us who don’t speak Finnish knew what was going on during both events. She had the program translated, along with the menu, and sat us with Juhani’s brother’s family, whom we met last time we were in Finland. There were plenty of speeches and presentations, some of which was translated, some not, but people were always willing to explain to us what was going on.

Saara told me later that the wedding ceremony and reception events were mostly a mix up of traditions and new things she’d read about and wanted to try. Had I found that comprehensive guide to Finnish weddings, I’d probably still have been just as clueless as to what to expect.

In the end, like the best of such things, the day was unique, it was special, and it was theirs.



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