16 January 2023

Praying through poems and
with USPG: 16 January 2023

A Christmas tree in the Vallila Centre for Ukrainians in Helsinki last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

I am continuing to work on reports on our recent visits to Budapest and Helsinki, when Charlotte and I visited church-based projects supported by the Anglican mission agency (USPG) and the Diocese in Europe, working with Ukrainian refugees in Hungary and Finland.

The Finnish capital was covered in snow throughout our visit to Helsinkilast week. My choice of a seasonal poem this morning, is ‘Sylvia’s Christmas Song’ (Sylvian joululaulu) by the Finnish poet Zacharis Topelius (1818-1898), and translated by Anniina Jokinen.

‘Sylvia’s Christmas Song’ is regarded by many as the most beautiful Finnish Christmas song and poem. Topelius was in Italy at Christmas-time, and missed his homeland when he wrote this poem. The original is in Topelius’s mother tongue, Finland’s dialect of Swedish, but it has since been translated into Finnish.

Zachris Topelius was a 19th century Finnish author, poet, journalist, historian, and Rector of the University of Helsinki, who also wrote historical novels set in Finland.

The original name of the Topelius family was the Finnish Toppila, but this was Latinised to Toppelius by the writer’s great-great-grandfather and later changed to Topelius.

Topelius was born at Kuddnäs, near Nykarleby in Ostrobothnia, the son of a physician, Dr Zacharias Topelius, who was distinguished as the earliest collector of Finnish folksongs.

As a child he heard his mother, Katarina Sofia Calamnius, sing the songs of the Finnish-Swedish poet Franzén. At the age of 11, he was sent to school in Oulu and boarded with family relatives who had a lending library.

He moved to Helsingfors or Helsinki in 1831, and became a member of the circle of young nationalist men surrounding Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland’s national poet and the author of the Finnish national anthem. Topelius studied history, theology and medicine at the Imperial Alexander University of Finland, and received his PhD in 1847 after completing his dissertation on ‘the custom of marriage among the ancient Finns.’

He was secretary of Societas pro Fauna et Flora Fennica (1842-1846), worked at the university library (1846-1861), and taught history, statistics and Swedish as a school teacher during those years.

Topelius was appointed a professor of the History of Finland at the university in 1854. He was made first ordinary professor of Finnish, Russian and Nordic history in 1863, and became professor of general history in 1876.

He was the Rector of the university from 1875 until 1878, when he retired as Emeritus Professor and received the title of verkligt statsråd or ‘state councillor’, a Russian honorary title.

At an early stage in his career, Topelius became known as a lyric poet, publishing three successive volumes of his Heather Blossoms (1845-1854). His earliest historical romance, The Duchess of Finland, published in 1850. He was also editor-in-chief of the Helsingfors Tidningar (1841-1860).

His Tales of a Barber-Surgeon, historical fiction from the days of Gustavus II Adolphus to those of Gustavus III, can be compared to the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and were published in five volumes (1853-1867). He also wrote a tragic drama Regina von Emmeritz (1854).

Topelius was an advocate of Finnish patriotism, and his political poem ‘Islossningen i Uleå älv’ was set to music by Jean Sibelius. With the composer Friedrich Pacius, Topelius wrote the libretto for the first Finnish opera, Kaarle-kuninkaan metsästys (Kung Karls jakt). Topelius wrote the libretto in Swedish, but its subject is emphatically Finnish.

According to tradition, the modern flag of Finland was based on a design by Topelius in about 1860. He died in 1898 in his manor house in Koivuniemi, Sipoo, where he wrote his greatest works. He is buried in the Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki.

Zachris Topelius was the Rector of the University of Helsinki in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Sylvia’s Christmas Song, by the Finnish poet Zachris Topelius, translated by Anniina Jokinen

And now it is Christmas in my lovèd north,
Is it Christmas as well, in the heart?
And bright Christmas candles do spread their light forth,
To each little cabin and hearth.
But up in the rafters there hangs high above,
The cage that imprisons my soul’s turtledove;
And quiet are now all the prisoners’ groans,
But oh, who pays heed to a prisoner's moans?

Oh shine you, the brightest of stars in the sky,
On my Finland so far, far from here;
When finally your light in the darkness doth die,
Oh, bless you that land, oh so dear!
I never will find one of equal worth,
My dearest will always be my land of birth;
My country to praise, I sing Sylvia’s song;
It e’er will remain as a song pure and strong.

The Government Palace in Senate Square, Helsinki … Zachris Topelius was an advocate of Finnish patriotism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on Wednesday (18 January), and the theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the ‘Week of Prayer For Christian Unity.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with a reflection from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray to be good listeners. May we learn to pay attention and hear what is being said, and so seek to understand.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

A Christmas tree outside the Kappeli restaurant in Esplanada Park, Helsinki … regular customers in the 19th century included the writer Zachris Topelius and the composer Jan Sibelius (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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