Helsinki, Finland

The Pagan Passover of Seurasaari

little kettle witch
Tyra, one of the many children from Helsinki who visit Seurasaari on Holy Saturday dressed as little witches or trolls.
arson fire
Audience admires the fire lit to ward off evil spirits as the bonfires rise.
easy attire
Katja Soini wears her own fashion during the pagan commemoration of Seurasaari.
Finnish Grilled
Convivas prepare sausages at a community barbecue on the island.
low heat
Grouped spectators admire the combustion of bonfires.
cold bench
Children watch the fire from the top of a snowdrift.
Father photographs daughters dressed as witches.
boreal figures
Young Finns talk at sunset on the edge of the Seurasaari forest.
Marita Nordman
An 80 year old woman, member of the Seurasaari Foundation and protector of Finnish folklore.
in pink outfits
Mini Aakko and Petra Toikka on their way to the bonfires.
blue winter
Frozen patch of Gulf of Finland around the island of Seurasaari.
from generation to generation
Finns of different ages perpetuate one of the country's strongest pagan traditions.
arson fire II
Spectators bask as the flames consume Seurasaari's branches and foliage.
roses and freckles
Petra Toikka in Seurasaari witch mode.
distant trail
Industrial silhouette breaks the reddish homogeneity of the sky west of Seurasaari.
In Helsinki, Holy Saturday is also celebrated in a Gentile way. Hundreds of families gather on an offshore island, around lit fires to chase away evil spirits, witches and trolls

As the afternoon and bus 24 progress, the already freezing temperature drops noticeably.

It reinforces the solidity of the Gulf of Finland patch that extends to the west.

A small army of children in colorful suits under winter clothes follows aboard, who, in Finnish manner, struggle to contain the anxiety generated by the impending revelry.

We arrived at the last stop. The passengers in jackets step outside in an orderly fashion, adjust their collars, hoods and bonnets and face the frigid scenery.

With no better way to orient ourselves, we followed them.

As happens with many of these suomi in relaxation mode, we were enchanted by the frozen lakes, bluish due to the early fading of the northern light and hidden behind natural fences made of tall, dry grass.

Frozen patch of Gulf of Finland around the island of Seurasaari

Wild flocks of ducks, geese, and other birds of the cold slosh in puddles opened by the underwater, too comfortable in that really liquid water to be bothered by human invasion.

Finally, we crossed a narrow bridge, an entrance built in 1891-92 with wood from trees felled during autumn storms. On the other side, we are already in Seurasaari.

The First Steps on Frozen Island

This island was used for some time to graze the cattle of a feudal lord in the region. But at the turn of the XNUMXth century, authorities adapted it to provide escape times for workers in the city and at one institution in particular, the Serving Company.

This company built over 30 recreational buildings there, including bars and ice cream parlors, sales stalls, public phonographs, panoramic observation machines and also the necessary lighting. 

During the unmerciful winter, the animation in Seurasaari seems to be far from what so much historical infrastructure suggests, but, as soon as spring sets in, the island comes alive and welcomes the majority of its approximately 500.000 annual visitors, some of them frequenting one of the three unique naturist beaches in the country of a thousand lakes.

From the edge of the lakes, we access a shady forest trail, in the wake of families who had also let themselves be late.

On both sides of the path, in the middle of the conifers, there are old mills and barns brought there since 1909 from different corners of Finland, with the purpose of integrating an open-air museum.

At spaces, additional intriguing structures insinuate themselves amidst the bare grove: a Lutheran chapel in cream and off-white worthy of a Finland of the Little Ones and, among others, a historic green telephone booth with yellow lining where two friends entertain themselves with photographs up.

Children watch the fire from the top of a snowdrift.

Barbecues that Serve as an Introduction to Great Bonfires

We walk a few hundred meters more and are enticed by the aroma of fire fed on barely dry wood and some grilling of meat that is still difficult to identify. Until we entered a clearing and came across a picnic crowd, arranged around a communal barbecue.

Golden people grill sausages skewered on branches and take comfort from the harsh weather while some drunken souls on the fringes of the capital's successful society sigh for eventual charities.

The Celebration of the Pagan Past of the Finns

Finnish Christians are almost all Lutherans, only a small percentage of the population follows the precepts of the Orthodox Church.

Tyra, one of the many children from Helsinki who visit Seurasaari on Holy Saturday dressed as little witches or trolls.

Many of them – starting with the Samis, ethnically and culturally distinct from the top of the Lapland – preserve beliefs or sympathy for ancestral Norse customs. It was exactly this relationship that brought together so many Finns in Seurasaari.

As a dedicated grandfather explains to us: “

Before, rural people believed these things very seriously, which in Easter holy saturday, evil spirits and witches flew over farms and fields, and the trolls milked the milk from the cows and cut their fur, like sheep and even horses.

It was thought that smoke and fire chased them away and, as such, lit huge bonfires”.

a Finnish Island of Tradition

Apart from the museum's buildings, the Seurasaari foundation, a strong defender of Finnish vernacular values, also began to carry out an annual reenactment of this tradition to the island in 1982 and to summon the inhabitants of Helsinki to its celebration.

When we leave the small cafe kiosk next to the barbecue already stocked with hot tea and cakes, several employees are trying to light the fires.

They have the support of a fire engine strategically placed for eventual emergencies, despite the snowy and wet ground around the unburned vegetation.

Grouped spectators admire the combustion of bonfires.

Tyra – the granddaughter of the old man who had explained the origin of the custom – passes by us dressed as a freckled little witch, surrounded by demonic friends who have just met.

A flock of ecstatic child spirits settles on a pile of dirty snow.

From there, like delighted little Neros, they watch the flames seize the trunks and green leaves and gain dimension in a few seconds.

Spectators bask as the flames consume Seurasaari's branches and foliage.

The Flames that Warm the Late Afternoon and the Crowd

The fascination remains for some time, but with the monotony of combustion, many of these children flock to snowball fights or in search of eggs and other sweets that family members have hidden in the dismal woods behind.

At the height of the fire, a poetry and singing recital opens in an amphitheater-style structure that recruits dozens of other children under the loving tutelage of Marita Nordman, an 80-year-old woman, an unavoidable figure in Finnish folklore.

Later, we see her circulating around the fires with a small basket with knitted, embroidered and other ornaments typical of the old ways of Finland.

Marita Nordman

The festival ends. Shortly thereafter, firefighters on duty extinguish the already dying bonfires.

To match, the day also announces its last death throes. As if by divine work, while the cold tightens like never before, the sky in the surroundings opens from an oil blue to orange and magenta tones that thicken.

Dozens of resilient guests look for the sun's incandescent ball. Once again, we follow the natives along a trail we hadn't even noticed and that ends at the edge of the forest, facing another icy inlet in the Gulf of Finland.

On the opposite side, the big star slowly sinks and creates a reddish background decorated by the silhouettes of trees and distant structures, also by the smoke of a chimney that stands out above the vegetation.

boreal figures

Young Finns talk at sunset on the edge of the Seurasaari forest.

After the illusory disappearance of the SOL, darkness sets in at once. We return to the bus stop with the help of flashlights and, shortly afterwards, to the cozy arms of sophisticated Helsinki.

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