After spending the last two years in the United States as a Sioux City Musketeer, Walt Hopponen has deduced that a Sioux City Christmas is very similar to the holiday celebration that takes place in his hometown of Espoo, Finland — only without a Christmas morning steam bath.

That’s right. Once Hopponen and his family wake on Dec. 25, they  spend time in a Finnish sauna. The hot-air baths are used for cleaning and refreshing the body — the Finnish use them as a place to relax with friends and family and are quite common in Finland. Doesn’t one of those sound good on a chilled Christmas morning?

“After that we eat a little bit of food and then we start watching Christmas movies like ‘Home Alone,’” said the 18-year-old Hopponen. “That one is my favorite.”

Last year, Hopponen was able to return home because of a scheduled tournament, but this year he is staying put in Sioux City with his host family. Although he misses his family, friends and the Finnish food, he’s looking forward to spending Christmas in Sioux City.

“There are only four or five months left before I’m going back home so it’s not a long time,” he said. “I have good family here, too, so it’s not a problem.”

CHRISTMAS IN ESPOO

Hopponen said his hometown is similar to Sioux City in size. The Espoo climate, he said, gets to be pretty snowy around this time of the year.

“But I think it’s getting a little colder here than it is in Finland,” said Hopponen, who added that he tends to check on the weather and news from back home.

He remembered the neighborhood being very friendly and that he grew up in the same area as an Anaheim Ducks hockey player. Hopponen was never really an inside kid. He could always be found outdoors, even when the winters were bitterly cold.

“I didn’t spend as much time at home,” he said. “I started to play outside with my friends at age 4 or 5 and played different games.”

He and his friends would play soccer, floor ball and, when the ponds would freeze over in December, ice hockey. Those same friends played on the same junior league hockey teams as Hopponen. Musketeers teammate Joel Janatuinen also grew up in Espoo.

“He was from a different neighborhood,” said Janatuinen. “We played together on a couple different junior teams.”

Like Hopponen, Janatuinen was born and raised in Espoo and agrees the place is similar to Sioux City, if not a little smaller.

“Other than people, it’s not that much different,” said the 19-year-old Janatuinen. “There are little differences in culture but both are great places to be.”

Janatuinen was recruited to the Musketeers this year as a left wing forward and lives in Sloan, Iowa, with his host family.

“Both parents are awesome and they really, really make me feel at home,” said Janatuinen.

But as the holidays start to roll around, he, like Hopponen, finds himself missing his family, friends and (of course) Finnish food.

“I wouldn't say that I’m homesick or anything,” he said. “I’m enjoying my time here as a hockey player.”

If he wasn’t in Sioux City for Christmas, Janatuinen would spend his time with his mom, dad, two older brothers and one older sister at his grandparents’ home about four hours north of Espoo.

When Janatuinen was younger, Christmas was his time to unwind from a busy schedule.

“During the year, it was quite hectic with school and I had a couple different sports going on so I was really doing something all the time,” he said. “It was really nice seeing grandparents and other relatives on Christmas and really take some time off and not do anything — just relax.”

The best part, he remembered, was the big Christmas meal.

“It’s a small town where my grandparents live so there’s not much else to do,” he said with a laugh. “Every day we were there, we ate a lot.”

His family would eat ham and a couple Finnish dishes like perunalaatikko, a blend of pureed potatoes and wheat flour that’s left to stand at a specific temperature. This process makes the mixture taste sweet. Other traditional foods like rutabaga casseroles or carrot casseroles were commonly made at Christmas gatherings, said Janatuinen.

HOCKEY AND CHRISTMAS

Whenever Janatuinen wasn’t hanging out with his family or eating platefuls of food, he was usually found outside with some hockey gear.

“When I’m up there, they have an outside rink,” he said, “so I’d spend every night there.”

A young Janatuinen was more than likely trying out the newest hockey gear he asked from Santa Claus.

“I loved, when I was younger, getting new gear,” Janatuinen said. “It was oh, oh so exciting.”

Nowadays, the hockey player can’t stand getting new gear. It just means he has to break in all in again.

“New sticks are always nice but everything else I hate changing,” he said. “You kind of feel like you’re used to them or it’s a grind breaking new stuff in. But as a young kid, it was so nice getting something new.”

And he always had the outside rink to try them out.

“I didn’t have much time to go outside and play because I had a lot of sports going on when I was young,” he said. “I liked to be out there for a couple hours a day.”

Although Janatuinen won’t be making it back to Espoo for Christmas this year, he said he still plans to Skype with his parents and wish them a merry Christmas -- all the while remembering his previous Christmases with family members and the tasty Finnish food.

“That’s pretty much what Christmas is about,” he said, “take a little time to relax, eat well and have a good time with family.”

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Weekender reporter

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