Making Christmas feel real
By Petri Tamminen
My friend Timo heard that there would be no ham at the Christmas dinner at his wife’s family home - just turkey. Consequently, Timo decided to cook a ham himself.
I understand Timo.
Other people’s Christmas traditions easily feel boring.
Some completely insignificant detail can trigger a flood of loneliness - someone calling a traditional dish by an unfamiliar name, or being asked to take part in a Christmas party game that one is not familiar with.
Christmas is a time of togetherness, but sometimes this togetherness feels like watching others being together.
At other times it is possible to take or leave the company of others, but at Christmas the divisions are made and cannot be changed.
Cooking the ham occurred at the last possible moment.
Timo did not get the ham into the oven until the morning of Christmas Eve.
He was supposed to leave after the televised Declaration of the Christmas Peace, but the ham was still raw on the inside.
Someone might now ask why a grown-up man did not deal with his issues in time and put the ham in the oven already in the evening.
But I understand Timo.
At Christmastide, time itself behaves in a strange way.
It stretches and then suddenly it contracts.
Sometimes whole hours will disappear, only to reappear somewhere else.
Naturally, people imagine in advance that they will have enough time to do just about anything.
The time illusion goes back to childhood.
Somewhere in the depths of one’s soul the idea of Christmas evokes visions of a relaxed holiday lasting about two weeks.
It is just like the summer always seems to begin on the last day of school - and then people are suddenly wondering why there is a hailstorm in June and why they still have to work.
In reality, Christmas in Finland lasts about 30 hours - from the morning of Christmas Eve through the evening of Christmas day.
This is preceded by hectic work. It’s busy, busy, busy - and then it is suddenly quiet, and then you understand that it actually is Christmas.
Was something left undone? Are you thinking of things at work?
That won’t do: it’s Christmas and hey, you’re supposed to act Christmassy.
Timo took the ham with him. He wrapped it tight in foil and put a bath towel around it, and packed the whole thing in a sports bag.
He planned to finish the cooking at the other end.
I could understand Timo.
Never leave your comrades-in-arms behind.
On the way to his wife’s home town, the family decided to drop by some friends to bring flowers and other Christmas greetings.
There was a good deal of standing at front doors and in hallways, expressing the kinds of heartfelt sentiments that people express at Christmas.
Or at least his wife expressed them.
Timo, on the other hand, kept looking at his watch and the boot of his car, thinking about the ham.
It is hard to be sociable and Christmassy if there is unfinished business in the back of the Mazda.
Some people think that the best thing in Christmas is that no projects are left undone, and that there is time to be sociable.
Supposedly it is OK to wish strangers a Merry Christmas, and you can actually love the people that you know.
It is supposedly magnificent that even Finns are capable of expressing warm feelings to each other at least once in the year.
Timo was not such a person.
He was used to expressing his feelings by doing things - by fixing something, or at least shovelling the snow.
And now it was Christmas and he was supposed to express something simply by "being there".
Fortunately he at least had the ham - something that was Christmassy and his own.
When they finally arrived at his wife’s home village, the Christmas Eve service was about to start, so they drove directly to the church.
The temperature was about 15 degrees below freezing. Timo made a quick strategic decision and took the bag with the ham in it inside.
The smell could be felt in the church immediately, they said.
People are supposed to become desensitised to smells in about half a minute, but according to Timo, the odour of the pork fat did not wane at all during the 45 minutes that the service lasted; the ham smelled evenly the whole time.
I don’t quite understand Timo on this score.
A well-wrapped ham would have done just as well in the insulated boot of the car as it did at the feet of the congregation on the cool floor of the church.
This is not to say that the ham would have desecrated the church service in any way, but it might be said that the floor of the church desecrated the ham.
The ham would have never made it to the Christmas dinner table anyway.
It had cooled down, or it had just taken umbrage in some other way, and it would not take on any more heat.
Cooking it required an unexpectedly long time.
Timo was ultimately the only one who tasted the ham after the actual Christmas dinner.
The meat was reportedly very dry and hard.
Its consistency was said to resemble charcoal.
The children poked the ham with a cooking fork.
Timo was not upset at this. He was actually wondering about himself.
With his stomach now full, he did not feel that it was in any way significant if it was ham or turkey that had filled him up. He did not understand how the matter had felt like such a problem for him.
Feeling his post-dinner bloatedness, Timo’s only real problem was that nobody ever eats an appropriate amount of food at Christmas.
He could at least have left just the slices of ham uneaten.
This is an embarrassing problem of the well-to-do, someone might think - actually an issue for people who are spoiled rotten.
But I understand Timo.
It is hard to show moderation at Christmas. Being extravagant is what Christmas is by nature.
If celebrating Christmas is not left slightly on the meagre side, the scales tip over into excess.
When Timo remembered the event in retrospect, he said that he could no longer identify with himself and his activities. He preferred to identify with the ham.
I think I understand what Timo means.
Nothing can be done about the overpowering nature of Christmas.
Sometimes it is quite like being put through the mill, and the only thing that can be done is to just ride it out.
Or perhaps it is that the grand plan of Christmas is based entirely on this kind of heavy lifting and exertion, that only after trying for a long time and being kept busy is it possible to achieve the "feeling of Christmas" and to rest like a ham rests on a serving tray, after giving all that it has to give.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.9.2011
Petri Tamminen is a Finnish novelist living in Vääksy.