Festival of the Dead
Kekri (also known as Köyri) was one of the biggest pagan holidays celebrated in ancient Finland.. It was usually celebrated on the first or the second week of November. Kekri was not a communal celebration. It was celebrated within the family and each family decided themselves when to celebrate Kekri. Celebration usually took place after all the harvest work was finally finished. Festivities lasted three days (Kekri Eve, Kekri Day and All soul´s Day). In modern Finnish calendar Kekri takes place on the first of November and All saint´s day on second of November. As a festival Kekri is similar to Samhain in Ireland, Calan Gaeaf in Wales, Day of the dead in Mexico and Vélines in Lithuania.
It is believed that the word ”kekri” is derived from Finno-ugrian world kekraj which means a circle or a wheel (to learn the pronunciation check the video below). Kekri was the end of the year celebration so it literally meant the turning of the wheel. As a word it is similar to Finnish world kekkerit which means a tiny party. Finnish word for november marraskuu refers to the dying month, marras meaning death. Kekri was part of a time period called jako-aika which means the dividing time. It was the darkest time of the year lasting from the beginning of October to December. It was believed that during jako-aika spirits were walking among the living and dead were able to visit their homes and families.
Many customs that belonged into Finnish Kekri celebration are now days part of the modern Finnish Christmas celebration. One of the most common customs was to eat a lot. It was recommend that one should eat at least seven or nine times a day. Kekri was a massive celebration in ancient Finland. Preparing for the darkest time of the year people needed to keep their hopes up and one way to do that was to have a celebration where there was food served that were not available in any other day.
Kekri was also time for fortune telling and spells. Young people performed love spells and tried to find out who their future spouse would be. Melting tin was a popular custom. In modern day Finland melting tin is part of new year´s traditions. Many of the spells and Kekri divination's were connected to the well being of the land and growing of the crop. One way to find out how to the future crop would grow was to serve lots of vodka to the master of the house and if he would not pass out the crop would be good and if he would pass out crop would not be successful.
Kekri god, ghost of both?
Finnish literal language was created in the 16th century. Biggest credit for this goes to Finnish archbishop Mikeal Agricola who translated several religious texts into Finnish. Agricola also wrote the first literal list of Finnish pagan deities. In this list of deities he mentions harvest god called Kekri.
Whether Kekri was a harvest god is in constant debate. There is a possibility that Kekri was a harvest god possibly borrowed from Baltic or Slavic folklore. Etymology of the word refers Kekri being the turning point of the wheel of the year.
There was a character which was essential part of the celebration and that was Kekripukki (literally means Kekri goat but can also be translated as Kekrisanta). Kekripukki was usually a young man who was dressed up in a fur that was turned upside down, wearing a mask and goat´s horns. Kekripukki and group of similar looking characters went from house to house singing, dancing and performing dirty plays and jokes for free drinks. It is possible that Kekripukki was a fertility symbol. Perhaps a representation of an early fertility god. In several countries and cultures goats and gods connected to goat or ox like animals are connected to fertility. Interestingly enough in Finland Kekripukki was the character that eventually inspired the character of Santa Claus/Father Christmas.
Along with young men walked group of young women called kekrittäret. They were women dressed up in white sheets and their faces covered with white paint.
Kekrimöröt were group of little children dressed up as ghosts/spirits/demons. Children smudged their faces and wore old sheets. They visited from house to house dancing and performing little plays during Kekri. This custom doesn´t exist anymore in modern day Finland. In Estonian countryside you can come across similar custom during Mardipäev in the 10th of November. In Estonia these children are called as Martis (dead spirits).
Welcoming the ancestors
Kekri was time to honor the ancestors and passed away relatives. Master of the house invited the ancestors in the Kekri eve by going outside and pouring some ale to the road. It was believed that the scent of the beer would wake up the ancestors and they would follow him inside the house. Dinner was prepared and places were also served for the ancestors. It was believed that spirits would enjoy their dinner while the family members would go into the sauna. Sauna was prepared for the ancestors as well. There was clean towels and vihta´s reserved for the ancestors. Sauna was warmed up for the whole night and it was believed that the ancestors would stay in the sauna till morning. Kekri was time to remind people that those who have passed away are never completely gone. They just live in another realm invisible to us.
Modern Day Kekri Celebration
In modern day Finland Kerki is mostly celebrated by neo-pagans. There are some pagan traditions that have been re-introduced to the wider public within recent years. One of them is burning the Kekri goat in the cities and villages. Kekri goat is a goat made from willow and it is lit on fire during Kekri evening. Families and friends gather together to watch the burning. Goat is usually 2-3 meters high and wide. It can be even bigger than that. This custom originates from old pagan custom to burn fires during Kekri to keep evil spirits away. It was believed that during Kekri evil spirits martaat would fly around doing bad deeds.
Many of the Kekri customs can now be found from Finnish Christmas and new year celebrations. Straws were big part of Kekri. In the agricultural society straws were powerful symbols that represented fertility of the land. All kinds of decorations made from straw like tiny straw goats were symbols of Kekri but now days they are symbols of Christmas in Finland and in Sweden. There was also announcement made for Kekri peace kekrirauha. For all people and animals to heave peaceful Kekri celebration. In modern day Finland each Christmas Eve in Turku the old capital of Finland Christmas peace joulurauha is announced.
Kekri was celebrated in Finland for a long time. Christianity arrived to Finland around 12th century but it was not until 18th and 19th centuries when almost all Finns were converted into Lutheranism. Kekri was very popular holiday among the people. From the end of the 19th century there are markings that people were still celebrating Kekri. In the 18th century and in the 19th century when Lutheranism was the only approved religion Kekri was banned and some of the punishments for people who celebrated Kekri were fines or they might even end up to prison for a while. Celebration slowly vanished in the beginning of the 20th century. This was partially because of Christianity but even bigger factor was the industrial revolution which forced many people to move away from the country side to the cities to look for work. Kekri the great harvest festival slowly disappeared. Kekri has been brought back within recent twenty years or so thanks to more research that has been made about the past customs and interest towards the traditions and beliefs of pre-Christian Finland.
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