Norway has its trolls, Iceland has its elves, and Finland has its Moomins.
In 2014, the Ateneum—an art museum in Finland's capital city, Helsinki—ran a temporary exhibit celebrating what would have been the 100th birthday of Tove Jansson, one of its most famous authors and illustrators. For approximately six months, hundreds of visitors lined up outside the museum each day, awaiting entry into this world of Jansson and her career. Once inside, they were treated to everything from the artist's own surrealist paintings to self-portraits, as well as an in-depth look into her most famous creations, the Moomins—a cartoon family of hippopotamus-like trolls and their distinct cast of friends, including a fanatic plant and stamp collector named The Hemulen, and a harmonica-playing vagabond known as Snufkin. Despite their fame (so enamored was Walt Disney that he once tried purchasing the rights to the Moomin name), I'd never heard of the Moomins until catching the exhibit's tail end. But what I've learned in the years since has brought me a whole new appreciation for Finland, its residents, and these oh-so-lovable Moomin creatures.
The Moomins made their first appearance in a short story, "The Moomins and the Great Flood," in 1945, and by 1954 were a comic strip in London's Evening Standard, the world's largest newspaper at the time. Today they are a part of Finland's national identity, woven into the fabric of the country as much so as saunas and Santa Claus. Flying into Helsinki-Vantaa International Airport, you'll see their plump figures adorning t-shirts, boxer shorts, and magnets in terminal shops, and beckoning visitors into the very first Moomin-themed airport cafe. Step into the Helsinki's Arabia store along Pohjoisesplanadi, in the heart of downtown, and mugs displaying characters like the fearless Little My (Snufkin's half-sister) and the gem-loving Sniff, recognizable by his long tail and pointy ears, line the shelves. In 2016, the city's Helsinki Art Museum (HAM) even opened its own permanent exhibit showcasing the life and works of this famed Moomins creator. In fact, over the last 75 years, Finland has hosted Moomin theatre performances, symposiums, and even a Moomin opera, and the faces of Moominpappa, Snork Maiden, Moomintroll, etc., have appeared on everything from the exterior of Finnair planes to a Finnish commemorative coin. There are Moomin plushies, key-chains, wall art, notebooks...you name it! At times Moomins might even seem more Finnish than the Finnish themselves—a quality that comes straight from Jansson.
Born in Helsinki in 1914, Jansson was part of a Finnish ethnic group known as Swedish-speaking Finns, who today make up between five and six percent of the country's population. She grew up in an artistic family in Finland's capital and—like many local children—spent summers by the seaside, specifically her family's retreat in Ängsmarn, Sweden. Jansson's childhood was a happy one, and she wanted the Moomin's own nuclear family, which includes the adventurous Moominpappa (recognizable by his top hat and walking stick), the always considerate Moominmamma, and Moomintroll, their ever-loyal son, to have the same.
As it turns out, happiness is a trait that Finland has in droves, at least according to the annual United Nations World Happiness Report. Like Norway and Denmark, the country continuously tops the list of world's "happiest countries," a ranking that has as much to do with Finland's work-life balance as it does with social support, access to the outdoors, and an overall sense of both individualism and equality. In the same way that Moomins can't seem to get enough of exploring the local landscape and the Moominvalley where they live, Finns (Jansson included) are fiercely proud of their homeland.
Another thing that makes Finn's happy: their homes. This is the place where both they and Moomins alike let down their guard to simply be themselves, inviting friends over for drinks and conversation, a bit of warmth and coziness, and plenty of snacks. Throughout Jansson's comic and nine Moomin books, the Moominhouse became such a gathering place that Moominpappa had to expand it to accommodate their ever-growing brood, which eventually included friends like Little My, Sniff, and sometimes Snorkmaiden (Moomintroll's girlfriend) and Snufkin—who otherwise stays in his tent. While family-friend Too-Ticky resides in the bathhouse, the hairy philosopher known as Muskrat spends his time hunkering down in a nearby hammock.
"There's also a lot of Finnish scenery and landscapes in the Moomin books," says Klaus P. and Anne R., a couple living in Finland who express their love for Moomins under the Instagram handle, @a_k_together. Their posted pics range from strategically placed Moomin figurines and plushes enjoying daily life in Finland: from walking along the trunk of a fallen tree in the country's vast woodlands to sitting down to an outdoor tea party.
The couple knows a lot about Moomins: their combined love for the creatures dates back to the mid-90s when Klaus, a German native, moved to Finland to be closer to Anne. “I was very eager to learn Finnish,” he says, “and the obvious choice was to start with the Moomin comics.” While pouring over Jansson's writings and illustrations, Klaus got to know the starry-eyed Snork Maiden, the introverted inventor Snork (Snorkmaiden's brother), and their Moomin brethren inside and out.
Three places that Jansson especially likes highlighting are "islands, lighthouses, and the sea," according to the couple. One-in-four Finns own a “mökki,” or a summer cabin, which is typically located in a remote location close to a lake or the sea, and even sometimes on an island. They're often without running water or electricity, but with plenty to keep Finns occupied, like picking wild strawberries, chopping firewood, swimming, fishing, and relaxing with friends after a long day's “work.” Moominpappa, too, especially loves the water. It's a connection that’s on full display in "Moominpappa at Sea," the seventh Moomin book and one in which the family patriarch moves his family to a lighthouse after tiring of the Moominvalley—then works endlessly to try and understand the natural happenings around him.
Like summer cabins, these lighthouses are another prominent Finnish feature, especially since the country is home to tens-of-thousands of islands (the second largest number of islands on Earth, after Sweden) and approximately 2,760 miles of coastline. These include Söderskär Lighthouse in the Gulf of Finland's Porvoo archipelago, where Jansson spent summers with partner Tuulikki Pietilä in their adult years; Tankar Lighthouse, a towering red-and-white beacon along Finland's Kokkola coast; and Bengtskär Lighthouse, with its gray stone walls and on-site cafe, located upon the country's southernmost inhabited place in Finland.
One main trait that both Finns and Moomins share is a deep connection to their surroundings. "Like Finns, Moomins are very close to nature," Klaus and Anne explain. With approximately 75 percent of Finland's landmass covered in forests (more than any other country in Europe), walking in the woods is commonplace. In the world of Moomins, Snufkin especially enjoys his solidarity wanderings among the forests of pine, fir, and birch trees, playing his harmonica and experiencing life as it comes. In the same way as his Finnish compatriots, he's one that never feels the need for small-talk and goes about his business with curiosity and ease. It’s this vast independence and love of nature that Klaus and Anne believe make Snufkin one of the most “Finnish” Moomin characters.
Living in Finland, Klaus and Anne also know that there's one thing that neither the Moomins nor the Finnish can escape: nature's often-harsh realities, including its ever-changing seasons. Winters in Finland are exceptionally long and relentless, with little to no sunlight and temperatures that remain below freezing—Moomintroll describes it as the time "when the world's asleep" in "Moominland Winter." Snow blankets much of the landscape, and many Finns—like Moomins—go into a sort of hibernation mode, retiring to their homes for bowls of warm mustikkakeitto (blueberry soup) and korvapuusti, or cinnamon rolls, and retreating to their saunas whenever possible. In Moomin literature, The Groke—with her wide-eyes and chilly aura—might be winter personified. Jansson writes that her looming presence is "cold and grey, like a lump of ice...When she slunk away, the ground was frosted white, where she had sat."
Thankfully, both Moomins and Finns also have another commonality: sisu, or their ability to face such realities with a sense of quiet stoicism. It's a concept that's uniquely Finnish—or Moomin, one might argue. When Moomintroll finds he can't fall back to sleep in "Moominland Midwinter" (though the rest of his family is slumbering peacefully), he walks into this unknown season with bravery and determination. Soon Moomintroll is making new friends, basking beneath the greenish glow of the aurora borealis, and cautiously learning to ski. In the same notion, you'll find Finns persevering through even the toughest challenges with ease and grace. In the case of winter, this means bundling up in thick layers to make the most of the outdoors despite endless twilight and a biting chill. Finns and Moomins are as hardy as they come, but make no mistake: at the first sign of summer, they're ready to take full advantage of the white nights and the rising temps. It's why the former go wild for Juhannus, or Midsummer, a massive annual celebration that falls on a Saturday around the summer solstice, complete with bonfires and sauna bathing.
Whether it's regarding the fundamentals of family, a keen sense of community and coming together to complete a specific task (expressed in Finnish as talkoot), or the value of individualism, the Moomins offer easy insight into Finnish customs and culture. But perhaps their best trait? They possess a purity which is only found in children," say Klaus and Anne.
Where to Learn About Moomins
If you want to delve into Finland's world of Moomins first-hand, you'll find numerous opportunities. The Vesileppis Hotel in eastern Finland's Leppävirta is home to an underground Moomin Ice Cave. Accessible from the hotel lobby and located nearly 100-feet below the surface, this unique winter wonderland features more than a dozen Moomin-themed ice sculptures, all carved out of ice derived from Lapland waters and ranging between 5 to 20-feet tall. There's also Moominworld—a children's theme park in Naantali, Finland, where you can explore the Moomin's distinctive round blue house, visit Snufkin's Camp, and lounge in Muskrat-inspired hammocks. For the world's only museum dedicated entirely to Moomins, head to Tampere, Finland. In addition to Jansson's original Moomin sketches and book illustrations, this Moomin Museum features a miniature Moominhouse that Jansson and her partner Pietilä built in the 1970s with Pentti Eistola—a Finnish doctor who began making his own small-sized Moomin houses two decades earlier.
Along with the HAM's permanent Tove Jansson exhibit, there are several Moomin-related sites around Helsinki to visit, including Jansson's studio from 1944 until her passing in 2001, located at Ullanlinnankatu 1 and marked with a small bronze sign; Jansson's childhood home at Luotsikatu 4; and Hietaniemi Cemetery, where she is buried.
The lovable cast of characters has infiltrated cities worldwide as well. There are Moomin shops in London's Covent Garden and Honolulu, as well as Moomin-themed cafes in Hong Kong's Harbour City and Bangkok. Since March 2019, Japan's Saitama Prefecture has been home to Moominvalley Park, the first Moomin theme park outside of Finland. It features its own three-story Moomin house, a lighthouse based on the one from "Moominpappa at Sea," and an immersive theatre showcasing Moominpappa's adventures in youth.