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Monday, December 19, 2011

Northern European Christmas Markets

One of the things I've really looked forward to ever since I learned about this fellowship was getting to have a Christmas in northern Europe.  I liked the idea of the atmosphere being more "Christmasy," and northern Europeans just know how to do Christmas right.  In particular, I think the outdoor Christmas fairs they have here are just lovely, and I've imagined Ted and I wandering around the booths checking out the wares, munching on hot chestnuts (please have those in Finland), and drinking whatever the local version of mulled wine is.  Just the thing to add to the Christmas mood!

I've really benefited, too, because the main Christmas market in Helsinki is now all of 2 blocks from my office.  Even when it used to be in the Esplanade park instead of Senate Square, it was only 3 blocks.  Perfect for a lunchtime stroll, although I must admit that I'm not a huge fan of the many fish dishes that seem to dominate the Helsinki market's food stalls.  There are, however, enough places to get mulled wine (glögi), chestnuts (starts with a k), and wurst that I'm a happy lady.

Well, on the 13th I actually remembered my camera so that I could take a few pictures to share.  This first one here looks across the market at twilight (about 3:30 pm) towards the Senate house.

If you look close, you can see the individual stalls.  Basically they're red, wooden sheds, although "shed" makes it sound like they're much more flimsy than they are.  Each stall has 3 solid walls and a big, deep ledge in the front where people can display goods if they want; about a third of the stalls let people inside somewhat, while the others just use the ledge and display other goods on the walls behind.  Some of the crafts are really interesting--I especially liked the couple of blacksmiths they had on the ends of two rows and some of the handweaving--but, unfortunately, there was some of the standard, mass-produced super-kitch, too.  I guess I shouldn't be cranky about that considering Senate Square is in the heart of tourist land and the craftspeople have to earn a living, but I was hoping for more Finnish handcrafts.

Having overcome the temptation to buy something from the blacksmiths--can you imagine explaining THAT to TSA on the flight back?--I worked my way around to the Senate side of the market and took this photo looking back towards the university.

You can see much better here the lovely glow things start to take on once the sun goes down.  It's especially enhanced by the Finnish custom of putting candles in the windows as part of the Christmas decorations.  In fact, the ones in the buildings around Senate Square here are up and on until January 9 as part of something called the Festival of Lights.  Given that I love to look in the lit-up windows at night anyway--I know, it's bad manners, but if I see something I don't like, I figure it's my problem--the candles really add to the atmosphere and make taking Ted out for his evening constitutional much more interesting!

In any case, one of the reasons I was hanging around the market so much on the 13th is that it's the festival of St. Lucia, which is one of the big social and religious celebrations in town.  (You can read more about it by clicking here.)  St. Lucia and her court are crowned in the Helsinki Cathedral, one of the buildings on Senate Square, and then process around the square and down Alexanderinkatu.  Myself, as a specialist in Reformation religion, I find the whole thing hysterical: the Lutheran Church crowns a symbolic saint?!  Why am I imagining Martin Luther rolling over in his grave?  So, as you might imagine, this I had to see!

Before then, though, I had time to kill (twilight is at 3:30, the coronation at 5, and the procession starts around 6), so I meandered a few blocks to the glass cafe I mentioned in the blog on Helsinki's Christmas, had some coffee and cake (yum), taught myself how to use my Finnish cellphone (finally), and decided it was a cool building albeit with overpriced stuff.  Worth it every once in awhile for the ambiance, though.  By around 5 I wandered back to the Square and did another tour of the market, this time at night.

Here you can really see the candles in the windows?  Aren't they great?  As you can see, another person had the same idea about photos!

While I was waiting, I had this conversation with 3 Finnish ladies who were sharing the edge of the blacksmith's shed with me.  (No fools us--great residual heat!)  They were the ones who told me that St. Lucia would come out of the cathedral at 6 pm; they also bemoaned the quality of the handicrafts at the market (things are never so good as they were in your youth) and pointed out the saint's float that was sitting off to the side of the cathedral steps.

Yep, St. Lucia's float.  While the truck is quite nifty, I was smiling at the float as I imagined Lucia hitching up her flowing skirt to climb in the bed! :-)  Or maybe she just levitated?

In any case, after interesting conversation and much people watching, St. Lucia processed her way down the steps (unfortunately I couldn't see exactly how she got into the truck).  Because the night was so dark, I pulled this picture of the glowing girl (I hear it's a big status thing to be chosen) from the local newspaper.  She is lovely, but then again, I suffer from my Catholic sensibilities. :-)

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