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Friday, December 2, 2011

Christmas Lights Downtown

As part of my post-Thanksgiving holiday celebrations, this past Saturday I decided I'd head to downtown with Ted after dark to wander around and take in the lights.  Although there may be some additional displays over the next week or so--it seems like a new shop sets things up everyday--I figured this would be a way of indulging that impulse that kept saying, "Thanksgiving is past.  Now it's Christmas."

If you want to follow my wanderings on a map, here one is.  Home base is up on the top left; I've also marked where we got off the tram at Kamppi and where we got back on to head home (by the train station).

So once it got dark on Saturday I piled onto the ole 3T tram and got off at the Kamppi mall.  Although it's only halfway to work according to the number of stops, it's actually right in downtown and less than 15 minutes to the university.  I'd gone past it I don't know how many times without getting off the tram and was starting to feel a bit weird about it, since so many people refer to services and stores in Kamppi.

Like many of the malls here in Helsinki, this one is so enclosed that it's often hard to figure out what shops are inside, although some companies pay to have neon names attached to the outside of the building (an odd sight at first, but now I find it useful and nicer than the towers of store names that we have at home.  Granted, though, the building signs would be harder to read at a distance.)

In any case, in mid-November Kamppi had started putting red lights around the bottom story of the mall.  Not only were the little red lights cool, but they had interspersed blinking white ones.  It makes it look as if wind is causing them to flicker, which in Helsinki it sometimes is!  The pictures only give you a slight sense of the effect.  This is the square outside the main Kamppi mall; the tram stop is just to the right and a big movie theater is right behind me.  (Yep, movie theaters and malls go together here, too!)

Let me apologize now for the blurriness of some of the shots.  Although my camera supposedly has a "night" feature, I realized once I got started that it was really only for nighttime portraits.  I hadn't brought a real tripod and wasn't going to go back to get the small one I use for digital archive shooting, so I took most of these via the tried-and-true method of gritting my teeth and holding my breath.  Realize, too, that I held Ted at the same time as I took these, although by about halfway through I'd figured out that I could drop his flexi-lead and stand on it.  Made life infinitely easier!

This was walking down the outside square; you can see another person had the same idea I did but a fancier camera.  The red lights all around are those twinkling Christmas lights.

Once you walk through the plaza above, you go down a few stairs into another plaza.  In this one you get a better sense of the lights courtesy of the big, neon bulletin board.  (Let's hear it for artificial lighting!)  The place was bustling because it was only 4:30 pm when I took this.  Yep, 4:30 on a Saturday at the end of November--Christmas-shopping time!

BTW, if you look to the left, you'll see what I mean about the signs on the buildings.

Once I walked through the mall and down the road a bit, I ran into one of the main streets in Helsinki, Mannerheimintie.  It's lined with trees and big imposing buildings, which would seem to be just the thing for Christmas decorations.  What I found interesting was how variable things were; some of the stretches in front of the big stores like Stockmann and Sokos and the Forum shopping center had decorations and lights in the trees, while other areas were pretty barren.  That hasn't changed over the past week either, so my guess is that each building is responsible for the stretch of road in front of them and some are willing to decorate while others aren't.

Here I tried to get a picture of the lit trees in front of Sokos.  What I really like about these is they have these long, white lights that, at night, make it look as if light is raining down the tree.  When you intersperse those with regular lights, it's a lovely effect.

Some might think of this as blurry; I'm trying to pretend it's artsy.  In any case, this is looking down Mannerheimintie as we walked down it.  (I'm standing on the little island in the middle of the road between the tram tracks trying to balance the camera and Ted; it's a miracle I didn't cause a wreck--or get yelled at by Finnish cops!)

Once I got around the backside of Stockmann, that is, the side on Pohjoisesplanadi, I saw this great series of Christmas trees.  It appears that this is one of the favorite spots to have someone take a Christmas portrait.

What I really liked, though, were the multi-colored light streaks hanging above the street.  These are like those ones they hang in the trees, but these remained solid color all the time.  This is the only street I know that has them, and I wish they did them on more streets.  Great effect!

Well, after a brief foray around the back of Stockmann and some pretty woeful attempts to take a picture of the Old Student House, which is on the corner of Mannerheimintie and Pohjoisesplandi, I gave up and started heading to the far end of the Esplanades.  I really wish I could've gotten a picture of the Old Student House, too,  because it was one of the most festive I saw.  They had outlined every window and doorway in this 18th-century stone building with string lights.  Very cool!)

As you can see, most of the park is pretty understated--like much of Helsinki in general--but I loved the areas where they did do up the lights.  The blue lights in the trees were pretty dramatic, as you'll see.  Blue seems to be a common holiday color here, and I can think of several reasons: blue and white are the national colors and blue is a natural complement to the snow most people presume will be on the ground this time of year, although there hasn't been any yet and none is forecast anytime soon.

Here you can look down from the center of the Esplanade towards Alexsanterinkatu, one of Helsinki's main shopping streets.  I just love how the buildings glow in the dark winter's night.

Here's more of the blue-lit trees against one of the great old buildings on the Esplanade: the Kamp hotel, one of the poshest in Finland.

About halfway down the Esplanade park, I stopped to "absorb the atmosphere" and re-sort gloves, scarves, hat, etc.  Ted meanwhile discovered his shadow.  He was so fascinated that I had to take a picture!

In the Esplanade park they have this cafe-bar-restaurant that's all glass.  I've always thought it looked really cool, even though I'm sure it's overpriced.  That being said, I was disappointed when I had to turn down the chance to go there with a group from the History Department after our day at Suomenlinna.  (Ted had been trapped in the apartment for 9 hours at that point.)  I'll definitely hit there at some stage--maybe a pause during a day spent at the Christmas market in the Esplanade park.

Here's a close-up with the Christmas decorations.

Once we got to the end of the Esplanade and reached the market by the port, we wandered around some back streets until we came to Senate Square, one of Helsinki's most important and most dramatic squares.  Not only are the Senate offices and the original university building on the square, but it's dominated by the Lutheran cathedral, as you can see here.

I played around taking photos with different settings on my camera.  While the top is less blurry, the bottom one gives you a more accurate sense of the colors and lighting.

Part of what makes the cathedral so dramatic is that it's built on one of the ubiquitous granite outcroppings of Helsinki, so there are lots and lots of steps just to get to its base level.  My office is about a block and half from here, so I walk by here often with Ted and even the uphill side has a LOT of steps.  It's very cool to stand on the top, though; you can look all around downtown Helsinki and the waterfront.

As you can see, they put a HUGE Christmas tree in front of the church, although it doesn't look huge next to the church itself.  With that in mind, I walked up to the base and took a picture.  It gives you a much better sense of the size.  In fact, I've started walking this way to the tram in the evening, even though it's a bit out of the way, just because I like to look at the tree and other Christmas lights.

If you turned left (facing the cathedral) from where I took the pictures, you'd look down Alexsanterinkatu, and you can see that they've done it all up for the season.  (This is another of the reasons I like to walk this way during Christmas to the tram stop.)  I hear that these decorations are part of a campaign to bring people into the city center to shop for the holidays, although I don't see any lack of shopping going on.  Whether that's because the lights were successful or unnecessary, I don't care; I like the look of them.  It's like the heated sidewalks on Alexskatu, too.  Yep, I hear they've installed heaters so that the sidewalks don't ice up and shoppers feel safe coming down there to shop in the snow and ice seasons.  Me, I'll just want to thank them for making part of my day's walk safe!!

Here are the As hanging down from every batch of lights.  I know why they have them, but aren't they a bit annoying?  I'd love something more "holidayey" in their place.

One of the other things I'd been told about were the windows at Stockmann, so I saved them for last.  The standard thing I'd heard is that they really do them up; they're like the windows at Macy's NY or SF, so I was looking forward to seeing them.

Certainly the big one on the corner was great.  It had animatronics, music, and LOTS of things to watch.  They'd even set up a little viewing platform so that kids could go up there, and the kids were having a great time.

Unfortunately the rest just didn't live up to the hype.  Basically all the rest of the windows at Stockmann were displays of merchandise focused around a different theme for each window--nice but not especially entertaining or Christmasy.  Here's a couple of examples.

The funny part is that I can imagine people (not necessarily Finns) saying that these somewhat meager window displays are because the Finns are less commercial than Americans so they don't put as much into the Christmas windows.  I really don't think that's it, especially because, as you can see above, the prices of everything in the window are clearly marked, whereas the festive windows at home are more like the big window with the reindeer.  I think it has to do with Finnish understatement in general.  I've noticed that everything here about the holidays is much more restrained, although there's frenetic shopping going on.  Although Christmas trees were up in Stockmann in early November, everywhere else it happened a lot later, and the decorations that are up are a lot smaller and more discreet that those in America.  Even the home decorations seem to be that way.  I don't see lots of lights and garlands in houses, although I do LOVE the 7-candle lights in more and more of the windows (No, those aren't menoras; they are a traditional Finnish Christmas display.).  It makes walking home from work just that bit more festive.  As for me, I found two, little, pre-lit trees that are now making their home in the window ledges in my living room.  Definitely makes me feel more Christmasy!

In any case, after my somewhat disappointing foray to Stockmann, I wandered back up the road with Ted to the train station where we repeated our commute by hopping the 3T back to the Towers.  It was fun to be on there with a bunch of people holding shopping bags, and Ted got his usual pats, smiles, and comments.  I just kept imagining the big, 1930s statues flanking the train station with Santa hats--or is that sacreligious?

Hope you enjoy!

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