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Declaration of Christmas Peace in 2014 in Porvoo, Finland.	Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

Christmas Peace: Finnish Criminals, You’ve Been Warned For Over 600 Years

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An ancient Finnish law promising harsher sentences for Christmas criminals was read out to an empty town square. 

Christmas is nearly upon us, and if you haven’t already outright cancelled family gatherings, they will no doubt be smaller than ever before. This is a stark contrast to the pagan Saturnalia festival of ancient Rome, which was held right before the winter solstice, from 17 to 23 December, in the old Julian calendar. This wild celebration was an annual mini-golden age, totally free of morality, where class reversals and free speech were fueled by Dionysian indulgences of drinking, sex and gambling and whatnot.

So too in ancient Finland, around Christmas, did society fall apart. This is why the 14th century Christmas Peace Declaration is still read aloud every year from the balcony of the Brinkkala building in the Old Great Square in Turku, Finland’s oldest city. Marking the beginning of the holidays, every year at noon on Christmas Eve, the Christmas Peace Declaration is televised live on Yle. Threatening more severe punishments to Christmas criminals, this 14th century law was first enacted by Swedish statesman Birger Jarl, who not only led the second Swedish Crusade but he also established Swedish rule in Finland.

The Declaration of Christmas Peace, Christmas Peace Parchment. (Turku)

The Declaration of Christmas Peace, Christmas Peace Parchment. (Turku)

Ancient Fins Kicked-Off, Roman Style

The Christmas Peace Declaration is essentially a public notice advising that penalties for legal violations committed during the Christmas period are much harsher than they are at other times of the year. Similarly to the chaos that unfolded in ancient Rome, but with no rules, Christmas time in Finland brought with it more free time, and with that came a lot of booze fueled violence.

Juha Nirkko is a Finnish Literature Society archivist, and according to Yle the researcher said that ‘excessive alcohol use, especially over the holidays, led to all kinds of conflict and disturbance,’ in the past. This amplification of laws at Christmas lasted for 20 days between December 24 to January 13, which was called Nuutinpäivä (the Feast of Saint Knut,) in ancient Finland. However, today, while the declaration is still read aloud to maintain the tradition, it has not been leaned on in a courtroom since. 1889.

Knocking The Door When Nobody’s Home

The Declaration has been broadcast on radio in both Finnish and Swedish since 1935, and on national television since 1983. Today it can be viewed live online and there were only a handful of occasions when the legal statement was not read out at the historic square. It was missed during the Greater Wrath, when Russia occupied Finland in 1712 and 1721, and again between 1809 and 1815 when the Grand Duchy of Finland was part of the Russian Empire.

Threat of civil war in 1917 caused another missed-year, and again in 1939 during the Winter War when there was a constant threat of air raids. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, 2020 was almost the first time the transmission wasn’t read live since the second world war, but ritual went ahead and the declaration was read to a completely empty town square.

Don’t Believe The Hype This Christmas

Thanks greatly to the mainstream media, many of us are worrying and getting anxious about the possibility of increased crime around the holidays. However, most news reports provide few statistics to support their claims of increased crime, so is Christmas time really more dangerous? According to reports from the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), two specific types of crime increase by around 20 percent in December: ‘robbery and personal larceny,’ (theft of personal property). However, more violent crimes like those recorded in ancient Finland, like murder, typically do not increase around the holidays.

The number one reason given for this increase of petty crimes around Christmas is related to sheer desperation, with so many people determined to give to family members or friends gifts over the holiday season, that are beyond their pay grades. Furthermore, with millions of people walking around carrying bags of expensive items, the holiday period activates opportunistic criminals. So, don’t worry yourself, just keep your wits about you and don’t take your eyes of your bags for a second!

Top image: Declaration of Christmas Peace in 2014 in Porvoo, Finland.  Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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