Christmas fair madness hits Baltic states

  • 2001-12-13
  • Kairi Kurm, TALLINN
Hand-knitted stockings, translucent amber baubles and snowy bearded men in red suits are not the only signs of the approach of Christmas in the Baltic states' cities.

Christmas markets are the other seasonal phenomenon enjoying new popularity and bringing much needed lats, kroons and litas into the hands of small-business men and women.

The warm aroma of spicy mulled wine, fresh bread and traditional blood sausage will draw Finns and Swedes off ferries to visit Tallinn Old Town's Christmas Market right up until Jan. 1.

The market place is a first for the Estonian capital and is intended to help boost winter tourism and draw in holiday shopping dollars from nearby Nordic nations.

"We've had the Christmas Market idea for four years," said Paul Oberschneider, the main organizer of the Tallinn market and head of the real estate company Ober Haus.

"Christmas fairs create a community spirit at Christmas time all across Central Europe and Scandinavia."

Latvia has jumped on the seasonal market bandwagon this year as well, with a new 50-stall shopping haven in Old Town Riga's cobblestoned Dome Square, which will be open for business until Dec. 24.

"Dome Square will become the place where we feel the approach of the holidays, where an atmosphere will prevail which will create positive emotions in people," said J.C. Cole, director of the new non-profit organization Vecrigas Ziemassvetku Tirdzins (Old Riga Christmas Market) and president of Architectural Investment.

"We really wish our people to regard this festivity as a national celebration. It'll be a wonderful ending for the Riga 800 anniversary celebrations and become an annual tradition in the future."

While a seasonal market targeted solely toward Christmas shoppers hasn't caught on yet in Lithuania, the main arts and crafts market on Pilies Street in Old Town Vilnius almost doubles in size for the winter holiday season.

The pointed roofs topping the wooden stalls lining both sides of the street - backed by an imposing view of the castle - start multiplying as the number of merchants hawking amber baubles, hand-woven mittens, and both high and low quality antiques increases.

Winter shopping land

One stall holder at the Estonian market, Piibe Piibur, said sales of her knitted gloves and socks had taken off since she set up shop on the square's icy cobblestones instead of selling inside a regular store.

Finns and Swedes make up most of the morning market shoppers, since ferries arrive at the Tallinn port early in the day, while Estonians start shopping after 4 p.m., once their work day is finished, Piibur said.

"People are very joyful when they come here with their children looking for Christmas presents," said Piibur.

Kersti Murga said she was doing a roaring trade in ceramic houses which double as candleholders, while Elmar Kivipold said his pillows stuffed with grain, honey, buckwheat flour and cookies appealed more to Estonians than foreign visitors.

"Tourists aren't interested in such souvenirs," said Kivipold.

While some of the bestsellers vary very little from the north to the south of the Baltic states - amber jewelry, hand-woven patterned textiles in addition to leather book jackets and earthenware pottery - there are also local favorites.

Estonians are fond of blown glass and wooden toys, while Lithuanians snatch up carved oak bowls. Latvians eye traditional wooden spinning tops and ceramic whistles.

Costly cottages

Christmas shoppers may love the quaint feeling of browsing from one wooden stall to the next in the crisp winter air, but building and maintaining a market is not cheap.

The budget for Tallinn's Christmas Market is just over 3 million kroons ($170,450).

While the rents merchants pay for the wooden stalls cover the cost of construction, electricity and cleaning services provided by the municipality, without sponsors the market couldn't exist, Oberschneider said.

"There were quite a few sponsors this time," he said. "But hopefully next year it'll be a little better because we can't continue funding this on our own."

A large advertising campaign - with print ads aimed not only at English-speaking expatriates in the Baltics but at Nordic tourists as well - means larger costs than a run-of-the-mill market.

Riga's market, which is donating proceeds to the Latvian Children's Fund, is also dependent on such big name sponsors as Radisson SAS and Reval hotels, Sarma & Norde and Tritan.