The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs in Finland and The Sparrow on a Christmas Morning

For many Finns, Christmas songs are all about singing together. The Finnish tradition of public sing-along events called The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs (MBCS) was started at the third Advent Sunday in the year 1973. During this time that particular Sunday attracted very few church-goers, and the idea of singing Christmas songs together was an experiment to activate people to visit churches.

Perhaps surprisingly, this is what the Finnish people have indeed done! According to a survey made by the Research Center of the Church of Finland, every parish of the Lutheran Church of Finland arranges these public sing-along events each year between the first Advent and the Epiphany. And again in 2017 the weekend of the third Advent Sunday has been the most important time to sing Christmas songs together.

Photo: Tapani Innanen

During these forty-four years, MBCS has grown into a large-scale phenomenon: a local parish can arrange up to dozen of MBCS events each year, not only in the church buildings but for example in garrisons, prisons, workplaces, trains, and restaurants as well. Every year the missionary organization Felm publishes a special song booklet for the event, comprising around 25 beloved Christmas songs. Currently, some 500 000 – 1 000 000 Finnish participants, out of the 5.5 million Finns, attend to MBCS events each year. Out of these people many are young adults who otherwise very rarely go to church in Finland.

But what actually brings people to these sing-along gatherings? When I was studying one of the MBSC events, a special questionnaire, with both closed and open-ended questions, was given out to the participants of that event. The answers to the open-ended questions offered the possibility to study the meaning of that particular MBCS event to the visitors. For example, a forty-year old female participant wrote: “I always go to Christmas Masses while I am abroad, and I get the strong desire to sing sad Finnish Christmas songs […] in the minor tune from the land of melancholy, and there are certainly enough of these types of songs to choose from!!

Her statement appears to be very incisive! Most of the songs sung in the studied MBCS event were composed to a minor melody. Furthermore, this is the case with many other favourite Finnish Christmas songs as well.

Interestingly enough, death, loss, and sorrow were frequently mentioned in the answers of the study. This phenomenon has something to do with the family-centered way of celebrating Christmas, which, in turn, can be seen in the popular habit of visiting cemeteries and the graves of deceased family members during Christmas Eve. On the other hand singing familiar songs, especially together in a crowded church hall, has the power to recall the old memories and emotions.

While these themes were important for the singers, none of the 12 songs that were sung at the event mentioned death directly. However, the song Varpunen jouluaamuna, or The Sparrow on a Christmas Morning in English, implies death indirectly in its lyrics. The song were written in 1859 originally in Swedish by the Finnish writer Zacharias Topelius. The fact that this very song was in 2016 voted to be most beautiful of the Finnish Christmas songs tells us something very special about the feelings connected to the Finnish celebration of Christmas!

Lyrics in Finnish by Konrad Hougberg

Lyrics accessed from:

1. Lumi on jo peittänyt kukat laaksosessa,
järvenaalto jäätynyt talvipakkasessa,
varpunen pienoinen syönyt kesäeinehen,
järvenaalto jäätynyt talvipakkasessa.
In the valley fell the snow, over trees and flowers.
Frozen waters’ vernal flow, summer gone for sowers.
Poor little sparrow mine Ate up summer-grain so fine
Frozen waters’ vernal flow, summer gone for sowers.
2. Pienen pirtin portailla oli tyttökulta:
Tule varpu, riemulla, ota siemen multa!
Joulu on, koditon varpuseni onneton,
tule tänne riemulla, ota siemen multa!
At the door, beneath a tree, stood a girl so darling:
Sparrow little, come to me, take a morsel, starveling!
Christmas for us begun, sparrow little woebegone
Sparrow little, come to me, take a morsel, starveling!
3. Tytön luo nyt riemuiten lensi varpukulta:
Kiitollisna siemenen otan kyllä sulta.
Palkita Jumala tahtoo kerran sinua.
Kiitollisna siemenen ota kyllä sulta.
To the girl then sparrow flew, joyful wings do flutter:
Gladly take I grain from you, morsel from your platter.
God shall then once reward the one who gives me a guard
Gladly take I grain from you, morsel from your platter.
4. En mä ole, lapseni, lintu tästä maasta.
Olen pieni veljesi, tulin taivahasta.
Siemenen pienoisen, jonka annoit köyhällen,
pieni sai sun veljesi enkeleitten maasta.
A stranger am I not to you, though from far away.
I’m your little brother who passed away a spring day.
The grain you brought to the poor who had come at your door
you gave it to your brother who passed away a spring day.

The lyrics paint an image of a very typical and traditional Finnish countryside in wintertime: a lowly house beside a lake, perhaps a small field on the side of a valley surrounded by forest; a lot of snow, cold weather, and only a few hours of daylight. As it is Christmas time, the poor girl gives her present to a sparrow, one of the few small birds we can see flying around even during the cold Finnish winter. Unexpectedly it turns out that the sparrow is her late little brother, who, after his death, now comes in the form of a bird to visit his sister. The minor key music, composed by Otto Kotilainen and published in 1913, emphasises the wistful mood of the lyrics.

I think Johanna Kurkela gives us a rendering apposite both musically and emotionally:

Ultimately, singing Christmas songs together is not limited to events like MBCS. Since 2005 there has been another kind of tradition of Christmas songs events in Finland as well. Some well-known Finnish heavy metal rock artists do each year a tour called the Heavy Christmas. I think The Sparrow on a Christmas morning fits, perhaps surprisingly, very well to the composition of Heavy Christmas! It follows faithfully this very typical Finnish Christmas tradition of singing together. It can be seen and heard when young adults sing this melancholic song by heart:

To conclude this post, it is still worth mentioning that there are some other kind of Finnish Christmas songs as well. Tulkoon joulu or Let there be Christmas is also one of the most popular songs used in The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs events, as well as in Heavy Christmas concerts. Now there is a melody in a major key, which goes well along with the wishes of joy and peace!

Lyrics (Finnish) and melody by Pekka Simojoki (1986) Lyrics accessed from:

   Niityillä lunta, hiljaiset kadut,

taakse jo jäänyt, on syksyn lohduttomuus.

Muistojen virtaa, lapsuuden sadut

Sanoma joulun on uusi mahdollisuus.


Joulu on taas, riemuitkaa nyt

lapsi on meille tänä yönä syntynyt

tulkoon toivo kansoille maan,

pääsköön vangit vankiloistaan

uskon siemen nouskoon pintaan,

olkoon rauha loppumaton.

Joulu on taas, kulkuset soi

jossakin äiti, lastaan seimeen kapaloi.

Tulkoon juhla todellinen,

tulkoon Jeesus herraksi sen,

tulkoon rakkaus, ihmisrintaan!

Silloin joulu luonamme on.

   Snow on the meadows, quieted streets

it is long left behind, the hopelessness of autumn

The stream of memories, the tales of childhood

The message of Christmas is a new opportunity


It’s Christmas again, so rejoice now

a child has been born to us tonight

let there be hope to the peoples of earth

let prisoners be let free from their prisons

let the seed of faith raise to the surface

let there be peace endless.

It’s Christmas again, the bells are jingling

somewhere a mother, is swaddling their children to a crib.

Let there be a real feast,

let Jesus be the lord of it

let there be love, in the chest of men

Then there will be Christmas with us.


   Tahtoisin päästä, paimenten mukaan

unohtaa kiireen ja melun rasittavan.

Aamu kun koitti, tiesikö kukaan,

tuo ensi joulu sai muuttaa historian.


   I’d like to join along, with the shepherds

to forget the haste and the noise so tiresome

When there was the dawn, did anyone know,

that this first Christmas would change the history.



   Ikuisen joulun, jos tahdot löytää,

sydämes avaa ja kohtaat Vapahtajan.

Et löydä kultaa, et juhlapöytää,

löydät vain seimen ja tallin koruttoman.


   The eternal Christmas, if you wish to find,

open your heart and you will meet the Redeemer.

You won’t find gold, not a feast,

you’ll only find a crib and a stall so simple.


Written by: Tapani Innanen, Dr., Adjunct Professor in Religious Education Faculty of Theology, University of Helsinki

Edited by: Sara Jormakka

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