Kaleva carries on Finnish tradition

Kaleva’s Maple Grove Township Cemetery lights up the night each year on Dec. 21 during the Kaleva Historical Society’s annual winter solstice event. (News Advocate File Photo)

By David Yarnell
Special to the News Advocate

KALEVA — The Finnish tradition of decorating deceased relatives’ graves during the Christmas season has become a Kaleva tradition, thanks to the work of many volunteers through the years.

They place luminaries – paper bags with candles inside — on graves at Maple Grove Cemetery at the east end of Kaleva on the longest night of the year, Dec. 21.

“I believe it was 1998 when it started, so I guess we could say this is the 20th anniversary or the 21st year,” said Cindy Asiala, who is president of the Kaleva Historical Society, which sponsors the event.

“It was the first year I was retired and joined the historical society that the idea came up to do this,” she said.

Asiala was working with a service learning class at Brethren High School to discover the Finnish heritage of Kaleva.

“We found out that it was a Finnish custom to go to the cemeteries on Christmas eve,” she said. “We decided it would be hard to do on Christmas eve so we came up with the idea of doing it on the longest night, the winter solstice, when there’s more dark than day. We decided that we’d call it the lighting of the longest night and that would be a way to honor the people in our cemetery.”

Two times through the years the event had to be canceled because of storms.

“We have weathered it through rain and wind, and wind makes it tough,” she said. “But we only cancel it if it’s absolutely impossible.”

Asiala said the volunteers are aiming to do 1,000 luminaries this year.

“Sometimes we run out of sand, a couple times we ran out of bags, but currently we have 1,000 candles and 1,000 paper bags that Larry Grocery donated to us.”

Asiala said that since the event is 20 years old, many volunteers have dropped out, requiring creative ways to bring in new helping hands.

“Last year we asked the Brethren High School basketball team, which my grandson is on, to help and both the girls and boys teams came and that was a huge help,” she said.

“We welcome anyone who wants to help. We’ve had people come from Traverse City, Big Rapids, all around. Some have relatives in Kaleva and others come because they like the idea of it.”

Placing the luminaries starts at 4 p.m.

“We meet across from the cemetery – people will be able to see the activity,” Asiala said. “They just pull up and load up whatever they have – sleds or backs of pick-up trucks.

“A group of six or eight people work in the garage putting the sand and candles in the bags to get them ready to be hauled off.”

Asiala said the hope is that the candles will last until about 10 p.m.

“Sometimes I’ve gone up there after 10 and there are still some of them burning. The best time to go is between 6 and 9.”

At about 5 p.m. the minister from nearby Bethany Lutheran Church leads a remembrance ceremony in the cemetery.

“The last couple of years we’ve had a nice fire to stand around,” Asiala said. “Then there is a soup supper at the Lutheran Church starting at about 5:30.”

In addition to the Winter Solstice event, the Kaleva Historical Society will hold its annual Christmas Open House at the Bottle House Museum on Sunday, Dec. 2.

“We hold open houses at the Bottle House and also the Kaleva Art Gallery on the first Sunday in December,” Asiala said.

“At the Bottle House we will again do the Finnish Heaven, which is another long tradition. It’s a wooden rack we hang over a Christmas tree near the ceiling. Elementary school children made stars out of foil and we hang them on the rack and put pine boughs on it.

“The tradition in Finland was that the children would sleep under it and they would see the stars and it would be like the night Jesus was born.”

Asiala added that the Christmas tree would be decorated with straw ornaments, another Scandinavian tradition.

“We have real candles in holders on the tree, but of course we don’t light them, but that’s how it used to be,” Asiala said. “We have some chains made of straw and put come old items from the museum under the tree.”

Asiala said special invitations to the open house go to the volunteers who have worked through the year to staff the Bottle House.

“We honor and thank them for their help because we wouldn’t be able to have the Bottle House open Saturdays and Sundays without them,” she said.

At the art gallery, located in downtown Kaleva, Asiala said there will be many items that can be purchased for Christmas gifts.

“We say hand made in Kaleva because our artists come mainly from a circle 10 miles around the town,” she said. “ We have some beautiful quilters and people that make really unique crafts and arts for gifts.”

 

Leave a Reply