The ancient European farming communities lived and died by the success of their crops. A good year meant a bountiful yield, easing the pressure on the coming winter. A poor harvest meant hard times lay ahead, with the punishing colder months likely to take a toll on the local community.
It’s easy to understand why the ancient pagans marked the end of the harvest with festivals and mass gatherings. In Britain and Ireland, the Celts celebrated Samhain from which many modern Halloween traditions can be traced. In Finland, it was Kekri, an autumnal festival that originally had no specific date but played an important part in each household's year.
Many of its traditions continue to thrive in modern Finland but are now attached to either Christmas or New Year celebrations. Part Samhain, part Day of the Dead, let us discover exactly what Kekri was and continues to be today.
The roots of Kekri
In our modern world, we enjoy the luxury of abundance. Whatever our heart desires, we can find at the nearest supermarket. The industrialisation and globalisation of the food market has meant there will always be something on the shelves.
Centuries ago, this wasn’t the case. The growing season was pivotal to the survival of local farming communities across Europe. The lives of ancient pagans revolved around the seasons and the harvest.
Finland in autumn meant celebrating Kekri. It was the focal point for people, a time to mark the end of the harvest, celebrate the new year, honour the dead and predict what might be on the horizon.
It’s believed that the word ‘Kekri’ comes from an old Finnish word meaning wheel (kekraj). Before modern calendars, the ancient pagans considered the time after the harvest as the beginning of the new year. Kekri was the turning of the wheel and the heralding in of the coming year.
Originally, Kekri had no set date and was celebrated by each farm whenever they had completed the harvest. However, with the rise of Christianity, they began to take place during Michaelmas (29th September) or All Saints’ Day (1st November) in different parts of Finland.
Let the feasts begin
The festival had no strict rules but there were common customs adhered to across the country. A common thread with Kekri and other pagan celebrations was the lavish feasting.
With the hard work of bringing in the harvest over, the people enjoyed the fruits of their labour and celebrated joyfully. The importance of overindulging at Kekri was more than just gluttony, for if someone went hungry that festival it meant bad omens for the following harvest. The volume of meat eaten represented how fat the cattle would grow next year, whilst beer was consumed to help make the barley grow.
‘Trick-or-Treat’ Kekri style
The classic Halloween custom of ‘Trick-or-Treat’ has its roots in the medieval traditions of Souling and guising. However, the custom of visiting neighbours in costume during times of celebration to either sing, perform or ask for gifts is a shared pagan tradition across much of Europe and was certainly a part of Kekri.
During Kekri, men dressed as Kekripukki, whilst the women dressed as Kekrittäri. The men adorned a goat horned mask, as well as a fur coat turned inside out and decorated with a variety of things such as spoons and shears. The women on the other hand wore white from top to bottom and covered their faces with white paint or gauze.
The costumed men and women then roamed from house to house requesting beer and food. Since no one was meant to go hungry during Kekri, the Kekripukki and Kekrittäri were often provided with an abundance of goodies to take away. However, if a house turned them away, they would threaten to break something, most likely the oven. The pagan ‘trick’ option was clearly one best to avoid!
Honouring the dead
Like so many other celebrations across the world marked around Allhallowtide (31st October – 2nd November), Kekri was as much about the living as it was about the dead. Farms honoured their deceased ancestors by laying a place for them at the feasting table and heating the sauna for them to use.
The head of the household invited the spirits of their ancestors in by pouring a line of ale from the road to their door. This custom not only allowed the people to pay homage to the deceased but also guaranteed protection of their lands for the coming year. If a dead ancestor didn't believe a farm was being kept in order, ill-will would befall the household. However, if they were pleased then they’d keep watch over it and offer protection.
This period between summer and winter was a time when the veil between this world and the next was at its thinnest, a belief shared by the Celts during Samhain.
During Kekri, the spirits were free to wander, which meant those of a more malevolent disposition could also be on the move. Bonfires were lit to ward the evil ones away, whilst people carved turnip lanterns to carry during the darker hours. Another way to hide from the spirits was to dress up as one.
Kekri heralded the ‘dividing time’ (jakoaika), a short period when people believed they lived between two years. During this time, the connection with the spirit world was at its strongest meaning it became customary to undertake practices of divination.
These included pouring molten tin into cold water and reading the shape of the cooled metal to interpret future events, as well as conducting love spells to foretell future partners.
Given the free movement of spirits, it was also important to take time off work during Kekri to limit the chances of encountering any sinister ones. This meant that for many, Kekri was also a time of holiday.
With the expansion of urbanisation and industrialisation, along with the introduction of the modern calendar, the popularity of Kekri waned. Although it seems a natural fit for Halloween, many of the customs and traditions of Kekri were absorbed into what is now Christmas and New Year. For example, the Kekripukki became the precursor to the modern Santa Claus in Finland.
There has been a healthy revival of Kekri in many Finnish households in recent years, driven by a growing interest in traditional folklore and a step away from the commercialisation of modern holidays.