On that morning, just by entering the door at Hilldale church, the world with its cares and complexities quickly transforms into a friendlier place. The bustling bake and craft sale in full swing in the church hall feels like a celebration, a celebration of all that we have to share with each other – like a pre-Pikku Joulu, Pikku Joulu – a place to experience a zest for life.
Amongst those who’d arrived ahead of me, and now ready to head out, was Liisa Lahtinen, who stopped to show me the treasures that she’d found – a copy of the Lord’s Prayer written in gold calligraphy and a package of Karjalan piirakkas. Raija Warkentin was almost also out the door, but had stopped to review the contents of her bag of purchases. She was reflecting on a lesson learned the previous year; it wasn’t wise to purchase her many packages of Karjalan piirakkas too far in advance of Christmas travels to visit family. With new idea in mind, she turned back to Annikki and Ritva Köhlin´s table to make arrangements for a special order that would be picked up closer to her departure date. Their few minutes of getting to know each other at the table, with an exchange of names and contact information, concluded warmly as they sang a song they were both suddenly reminded of, “minä soitan sinulle illalla…”.
There were all sorts of old friends to catch up with and little details of life to share and savour. Arja Hiiback was there with her daughter-in-law Alexia, this year displaying a brand new sign, “Mummo’s Socks”, that had been a Christmas gift. The “mummo” in the sign, refers to Arja’s late mother, Lyyli Kosonen who was her knitting inspiration. She shows me some other additions and improvements at her table – the handy wooden boxes made by her husband to keep things organized and the cloth gift bags that she now sews. We exchange a bit of camp news, since we’re lake neighbours in the summer, and then I move out of the way so that she can attend to some paying customers.
Kaija Mäki, who was one of those potential customers, told me that she was feeling unsettled this year about being “pokey”. Typically she’s very organized, she tells me, and has a Christmas list. Now she’s asking herself, “what now?” since she feels like she’s bought everything already in the past that she can think of. “I hear you!” I tell her. It’s a sentiment that probably rings true for so many of us… and yet, who wants to be the one to pop the bubble?
Rose Niemi is another crafter who, like Arja, keeps the memory of mothers and grandmothers alive at these events and through the crafts they produce. Rose has a collection of rolled up woven rag rugs, the patterns resembling the ones I have on my own floor, that were made by my mother. As it turns out, these are “mummon matot”, an inheritance from her mother’s mother, Amanda Soini. These rugs from an earlier time, would have many tales to tell, if only they could talk. Rose herself is also a weaver and a painter and has a beautiful selection of her nature-themed, hand-painted cards on display.
I love the colourful patterns on the socks and mitts on Irja Keski-Pukkila’s table, so I always make a point of checking to see what new creations she has. I find some lovely stripped baby socks that I pick up as part of a baby shower gift. Irja tells me that the arthritis in her fingers is giving her a hard time and how sometimes it’s a challenge to knit the patterns as nicely as she’d like to. There’s some suffering involved in being a perfectionist, I think to myself.
Margit Peura a few tables over, tells me something that Irja could benefit from. Margit says she uses Seitsemän veljestä and Nalle wool that comes from Finland and how the wool feels good and soothing to her hands. I’ve heard others speak about the healing effect of the lanolin that’s naturally in wool.
Margit has a colourful collection of whimsical hats, some of the smaller ones seem to plot the transformation of children into vegetables and fruit. I select a snug adult size for myself. It’s a bright swirl of orange that I’m hoping will lend some necessary colour and distract from wrinkles. Margit says, “I enjoy wearing these hats since I have short hair, and I hope that others will enjoy them too. I don’t follow a pattern when I make them, I just get inspired by looking at the yarns.”
Our conversation turns to contemplating the paused construction site that is now where the Finnish Labour Temple once stood. Margit and Arno ran a deli shop right across the street from it for many years and otherwise, as well, had many involvements there with the Finlandia Association. She tells me that since it’s no longer a part of their daily life, there’s been a reconciling that it’s finished now. There’s been a coming to terms with that end. “It’s very sad” – and this final reflection, no doubt, sums up what so many feel.
The Touhutiltat, the women’s group at the church, along with Pastor Sirpa Tolppanen, have done a great job once again, setting up this special event. I head over to enjoy the refreshments this hard-working group has prepared. Birgit Vuorela, one of the group’s active members, is at the kitchen window serving up steaming cups of coffee. I take mine along with an open-faced sandwich. She points out too, that I can help myself to treats donated by Current River Bakery, one of the few Finnish bakeries I’m glad is still operating in Thunder Bay.
It reminds me to mention to Birgit, who is part of the Pulla Lady family bakery, that I enjoyed her pulla all the way in Winnipeg, where it was being sold at the Scandinavian Cultural Centre during their Folklorama events in August. It surprised me to find it so far away, and I had to ask, “Don’t they know how to make pulla in Winnipeg?” Birgit just smiled and shrugged, “I’ll be sending them another big order soon, so I guess not.” Maybe they just can’t make it as tasty as Birgit’s, I decide, and that’s totally believable!
At that moment, the eleventh hour of the eleventh month, Pastor Sirpa Tolppanen calls everyone’s attention to a Remembrance Day reflection and prayer, to hear the playing of the Last Post, to observe a minute of silence and to sing O Canada. It was a deeply poignant pause in the busy morning and a reminder of the importance of gratitude.
I settle in to enjoy my treats and the company of Marjatta Mäkela and Eila Koivumäki and I’m barely seated when Marjatta shares some wisdom with me. “Never put your purse on the floor. It’s bad luck!” she warns. That perhaps explains a lot of things, I quietly contemplate, and more thoughtfully reposition my backpack.
With the onset of cold weather, I know that Marjatta has had to pack up her golf clubs, so I ask her how she’s replaced that pastime. “I read a lot of books and do puzzles during the winter”, she tells me. “I enjoy doing the kuvaristikoita from Finland but now they have so many confusing slang words”, and then confesses, “It’s a good thing the answers are at the back.” She tells me that she’s reading an especially interesting book right now. It’s the recently published book by Jenni Haukio, the wife of President Sauli Niinistö, entitled, “Sinun tähtesi täällä” (On Your Behalf). The book relates her experiences as Finland’s First Lady during the 12 years that she’s lived in the Presidential Palace. Marjatta is savouring the quality of the writing and finds it richly descriptive, taking her time to read it, so as not to miss the many details.
Before heading home, I meet a few more friends. There’s Paula Sullivan with her husband Mark. They’ve picked up some hernekeitto and we end up talking about casseroles. Paula says that she makes all the different kinds, but that her son makes a better porkkanalaatikko than she does. I tell her that I love hearing my great nieces say “lanttulaatikko” and that’s what motivates me to make it for family suppers.
We also meet Pastor Jari Lahtinen, looking relaxed, retired and fully engaged in papa-duty with his grandson Veikko. It’s nice that this little guy is being introduced too, to all the joy and richness of this place and its people. Maybe there’ll be an interview in the KS with Veikko one day and we can find out what he’s reading, baking, thinking about, or …. who knows? There’s an inkling of the treats that await.
The season is off to a happy start with this fine pre- Pikku Joulu, Pikku Joulu and it’s been a generous sampling of the zest for life!
Text and Photos: Anneli Tolvanen
Voit lukea Hilldalen joulumyyjäisistä suomeksi Kanadan Sanomien 5. joulukuuta ilmestyvästä numerosta.