By Marja

During the weeks preceding Christmas, Finland – like many European countries – is overrun by PARTY FEVER. This phenomenon is called the pikkujoulu (pre-Christmas party) season in Finnish.

The literal word-for-word translation of pikkujoulu means ‘little Christmas’.  It refers to the anticipation of Christmas, being a time for preparing the Christmas festivities.  In the conventional sense, the season for pikkujoulu starts with the first Advent Saturday, which is the fourth Sunday eve before Christmas.  Nowadays, it begins already earlier in late November. Although the original concept is based on Advent, the modern pikkujoulu tradition is secular, non-formal, and increasingly commercial.  Pikkujoulu parties have nothing to do with any religion in spite of their cultural roots stemming from Christianity.

Pikkujoulu parties are held by all kinds of communities: companies and public sector employers, societies and associations, school classes and student organizations, or just groups of friends and family members.  They cover all age cohorts from kindergartens to rest homes of senior citizens. Yet, the company parties are the legendary flagships of the pikkujoulu season.  The latter constitute the basis for both humorous and embarrassing tales.  Sometimes those stories are for adults only…

The most traditional pikkujoulu drink is called glögi which is drunk hot.  It is the Finnish equivalent to the Swedish glögg and the German Glühwein or mulled wine. Glögi is made of hot blackcurrant juice and/or red wine which is spiced with cinnamon, ginger, clove, raisins, and almonds.  Strong glögi can have a 22 % alcohol content. In the latter case, it is further spiked by vodka, for instance.  Non-alcoholic glögi was originally just a children’s drink, but currently it is commonly enjoyed among adults, as well.  It tastes nice with brown gingerbread cookies.

Epic office parties

Pikkujoulu parties usually belong to the fringe benefits of one’s workplace. In other words, the employer organization pays the costs and treats the staff to the night.  Especially in the past, pikkujoulu was regarded as the social highlight of the workplace which culminated the year.  

Women used to plan long before what to wear in the party and bought fashionable but unpractical, glimmering spangle dresses that they wore only once.  Employees were quarreling among themselves where and how to organize the party: there were as many opinions as attendants of a given discussion. The spending policy of the company sometimes gave rise to heated debates: on one hand, an austerity budget was not only disappointing but could be considered the depreciation of the staff’s efforts; on the other hand, wasteful overspending appeared unethical if the company had recently laid off employees or had refused wage rises.  

The typical elements of a firm’s pikkujoulu comprise a dinner, festive speeches followed by funny sketches and jokes or other witty programs, as well as merry and joyful Christmas songs.  Finally, dancing – preferably in live music – tops off the party. In addition, a sauna session, a quiz or a humorous contest, and karaoke may be included in the program.  Sometimes Santa too visits the party, bringing little gag gifts. The unavoidable matter-of-fact intervention is kept as short as possible since the main purpose of the night is to relax and have fun.  The CEO’s official review of the year may be followed by another formal part when the decorations of the firm awards are conferred upon employees who have been working for the company for 10, 15, 20, 25 or 30 years.

The best program usually consists of the humorous plays, sketches, revues or stand-up shows prepared by the employees themselves.  The company people can launch insider jokes that hit a nerve. Rewritten song lyrics work respectively.  Unfortunately, this kind of inventive self-made program is declining from year to year because people are too busy or lazy to work with it.  Hired professionals – comedians, actors, magicians, mentalists, singers, etc. – are replacing the “home-spun” amateurs at least in large, wealthy companies, which is a pity.

The same regrettable trend of turning pikkujoulu into an ordinary, commonplace event is to be seen in the choice of dishes and music.  In the past, pikkujoulu was the occasion when traditional Christmas dishes were served for the first time in the year.  Today, the menu may contain any à la carte courses. In the past, companies printed out song books with jolly, lighthearted and secular Christmas hits that everyone knew beforehand, often since childhood.  Participants were wearing red Santa hats while they were singing these songs all together. Nowadays, a band or a DJ takes care of the music alone. Rather than in the premises of the company, the party is likely to take place in a restaurant or on a cruise to Sweden or Estonia, which again makes it more impersonal and anonymous.

For some attendees who seem to have an endless thirst, one of the main attractions of these parties is the alcoholic beverages.  After enough liquid courage has been consumed, unsociable people suddenly become friendly, shy people tell off-color jokes, cautious people may offer the boss some unsolicited advice, or someone may confess his or her romantic feelings for an unsuspecting coworker.  The atmosphere peaks in the early hours of the morning when hungry, tired and moody people are queuing a hot dog or a taxi stand in freezing sleet and slush.

Gossip will always continue living after the party.  Coffee and lunch breaks are filled with nosy stories of  pikkujoulu incidents: Who made a fool of himself on the dancefloor and then zonked out in a corner?  Who ended up in bed with whom? Who said his piece and told off the boss after getting drunk?  Moreover, the quality of the food, program and venue will be assessed in detail.

The more the merrier

Many Finns are not satisfied to attend just one pikkujoulu.  Many will go to several or even a dozen different parties: some to socialise with colleagues, others to celebrate with friends and still others to network with customers.  An ideal pikkujoulu is a magic combination of immemorial excitement, cheerful amusement and trustful sense of belonging.  Taxis, restaurants, hotels, hairdressers, fashion shops and perhaps pharmacies (on the day after) are also enjoying this colorful, profitable season.