Bring anew the harp of joyance,
Bring again the golden moonlight,
Bring again the silver sunshine,
Peace and plenty to the Northland.
Kalevala: Rune L (Mariatta–Wainamoinen’s Departure)
A crowd of hundreds is gathered on the darkened beach by the Gulf of Finland. All eyes are fixated on the horned figure, one not seen in these parts in living memory, standing by the water. Drums begin to sound. A man approaches the animal and connects his flaming torch with its hay skin. The crowd cheers as it erupts in brilliant flames, announcing the sacrifice to those present and on the decks of the cruise ships silently passing by in the darkness. A new year has begun.
October 31st marked the return of a long-lost Finnish tradition on the scenic shores of Helsinki’s Suomenlinna sea fortress. Viaporin kekri (”Viapori’s Kekri” after Suomenlinna’s old name, written with a lowercase K in Finnish) festival became the first-ever major public event to attempt to revive the almost forgotten pagan harvest festival of Kekri. After a hugely successful first installation, Viaporin kekri is now set to become an annual event.
The festival of life and death
Rooted in the seasonal cycle observed by ancient agrarian cultures in Europe, Kekri marks the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. Originally, it didn’t have a fixed date; each household, including the workers, would celebrate it individually after bringing the cattle in for the winter and completing the year’s harvest. Fertility symbols and magic were evoked during the carnevalistic end-of-the-year rite to ensure an abundant harvest the following year, too.
By the early 19th century Kekri had acquired a semi-fixed date – generally the 1st of November or, later, the first Saturday or Sunday of November – and effectively merged with All Saints’ Day. Under Christian influence the pagan holiday took on the explicit role of the festival of life and death. It was believed that during Kekri the veil between this world and the great beyond wore so thin that the spirits of the deceased could walk the earth. Not only did families invite their living members for the Kekri feast; the table was set for those passed, too.
Rather than adopting the somber mood of All Saints’ Day, however, Kekri retained its joyous and carnivalistic character. In this regard, it resembled its more famous foreign cousins Dia de los Muertos, Samhain and, ultimately, Halloween. Kekri remained the most magical night of the year, full of song, dance, feasting, divination and spell-casting. A central character was (a young man or young men dressed as) the Kekri buck: a goat-like guardian of cattle and fertility that would roam the village at night, knocking on people’s doors and asking for offerings. The parallels with trick-or-treating here should be obvious.
A Kekri buck from 1927
Kekri takes a holiday
By the 1860s, Kekri’s popularity had began to decline as a result of Finland’s rapid industrialization. The newly emerged urban populations fell out of touch with the seasonal cycle of their agrarian parents and grandparents, no longer finding meaning many of the old customs associated with it. The church’s efforts at suppressing the ‘demonic’ festival may also have played a role in its disappearance. The key elements of Kekri gradually became absorbed into Christmas and New Year. For example, the figure of the Kekri buck morphed into the more well-known character of – you guessed it – Santa Claus.
Nowadays, it seems as though Kekri is only celebrated and remembered by various brands of history and folklore enthusiasts, academics, neo-pagans, national romantics and a small handful of rural communes scattered around Finland. Enter Viaporin kekri: a very promising new event with a pitch-perfect location and powerful organizers set to reintroduce the public to the almost forgotten festival.
Like the Kekri buck, the pre-modern era Finnish Santa Claus (Joulupukki) could be a pretty, ah, let’s just say dark character
One can hardly think of a better venue for Kekri’s revival than Helsinki’s (and possibly Finland’s) foremost tourist attraction: the Suomenlinna sea fortress built on six small islands just off the mainland. For an entry fee of exactly zero euros, the visitor can explore a labyrinth of old stone buildings, cobble stone streets, dark tunnels and mysterious little doorways at their own discretion.
For one night, this little ”village”, where some 750 people still live, became the backdrop for Viaporin kekri’s dizzying array of events: folk music, theatre, dance, harvest delicacies, rituals, divination, tours into the off-limits parts of the fortress… All, of course, with a fabulously dark bent.
The sun had already set by the time our merry duo of heathens, after a rather dramatic ferry ride with a group of unruly women loudly singing Finnish schlager, set our feet on Suomenlinna soil. Immediately we could see that the event was a success: the streets were packed with happy party people, local and foreign alike, and amongst them, several black-hooded figures and skeleton-faced 18th century servicemen giving out info leaflets and guiding visitors. Yikes.
Realizing that my poor standard camera wouldn’t be able to capture the darkness and ruckus very well (as is evident from the few original pictures accompanying this text), we proceeded to catch a very intriguing tour to the secret pump room of Suomenlinna’s old shipyard.
Dating back to 1749, the Suomenlinna Shipyard is one of the oldest dry docks still in use today. Its pump room, a cave-like structure connected to the dock through two wells that would fill up when the basin was being emptied, used to be operated by real live horses. Today, the room itself is no longer in use and only bits and pieces of the 18th century machinery remain. The tour concluded with a visit to an aerial walkway overlooking the shipyard itself, a majestic sight in its own right.
After the tour we wandered around the dimly lit streets and marketplaces, listening to the otherworldly sounds of the viola emanating from somewhere within the old buildings and trying to snap at least a few passable pictures of the picturesque tourist site completely transformed by late October darkness and mystery. Not much luck this time either. At 19.45 came the event’s long-awaited climax: the ritual burning of the Kekri buck at Varvilahti beach.
We secured a spot uphill by the beach and waited for the crowd to gather. Soon enough, drums began to sound. A troop of undead soldiers playing eerie flutes, accompanied by a party of masked turn-of-the-century aristocrats, settled next to us as the master of the ceremony, a man dressed in white, descended to the beach and started towards the hay figure. The words he spoke, though loud, were mostly eaten up by the heavy wind. Yet their meaning was clear: with this sacrifice the past year would melt away, taking all our troubles and sorrows with it.
Then a member of the Fire Department carrying a torch and dressed in protective clothing (because this is still Finland in 2015 after all) joined the man in white, dragging his torch along the buck’s sides until the flames became so strong that they illuminated the whole beach. The hay figure burnt and burnt until its mere metal skeleton remained.
Old customs, new readings
Afterwards we sat down for some shamanic drumming at Café Icecellar, a welcome rest after a few hours of walking in crisp autumn air. Shaman Robin DeWan skillfully played the didgeridoo – not a native Finnish instrument – which got us thinking about the nature of Kekri today. What we had witnessed during the night was, in many parts, clearly not your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s Kekri. This version of the ancient Finnish festival, though certainly not untrue to its own history, seemed to pay direct homage to modern global phenomena from Halloween to Dia de los Muertos, from gothic culture to the umbrella of neo-paganism.
Personally, I think change is both perfectly acceptable and inevitable. Each new generation celebrates Kekri in the way that most resonates with their experience of life, death and all the pleasures in between. Agrarian Finns observed it as a part of the seasonal cycle; their Christianized descendants were inspired by it and All Saints’ Day alike; and now, in 2015, the festival is brought back by people shaped by 24/7 cross-cultural encounters and exchange. That Kekri would come out looking a little different than before is hardly a surprise.
This is not to say that there still isn’t room in this world for different, even ”traditional”, interpretations of Kekri. My sincere wish for following years is that Viaporin kekri will establish itself in the seasonal cycle of Helsinki’s cultural events and inspire others to add a little bit of magic and mystery to the drab autumn months in the way they see fit. Gods know us city dwellers could use it in our lives.
As for the two of us, we ended the most magical night of the year with a peaceful ferry ride across the Gulf of Finland back to the mainland. The following night we found ourselves on one more exciting Kekri adventure that had us literally descend into the Helsinki underworld… but that’s a story I’ll save for another time.
Sources and further reading (in Finnish)
Follow Suomenlinna Sea Fortress on Instagram.