Text and photos by Katja Pantzar, November 2005
Helsinki is a city that truly celebrates Christmas. The lead up to the big day starts in late November, when Santa Claus opens the Finnish capital’s official “Christmas Street” on Aleksanterinkatu (one of Helsinki’s main thoroughfares), famous for its Christmas lighting display. Crowds of children of all ages line the street’s sidewalks to catch a glimpse of jolly Saint Nick, who is a celebrity in his own right here – which is not surprising, for as all Finns know, the real Santa Claus comes from Lapland in northern Finland.
In the weeks before Christmas the Finnish capital comes alive, as people enjoy pre-Christmas parties (pikkujoulut) and shops and boutiques get into the spirit of the season. One of Helsinki’s unique charms is that it’s a great place to find original handicrafts and examples of Finnish design that are a refreshing alternative to the mass-market wares available elsewhere.
Kiseleff Bazaar is an excellent place to shop for all kinds of gifts, from cards and candles to wool sweaters and quilts. Just about everything here is handmade, and therefore completely unique. Several fabric and wool artisans, as well as many jewellers who work in silver, gold, glass and metal, share this cosy two-storey complex that once housed a sugar factory. There’s something for every member of the family at the Krafti stand, located inside the bazaar near the Aleksanterinkatu entrance, which stocks everything from hand-printed t-shirts to felt pot holders.
About a two-minute walk away across the Esplanade is Taito Shop Helsky, which also specialises in handicrafts ranging from linen hand towels to wool socks, and seasonal specialities such as Christmas tea and liquorice. Virtually all of their products are practical, modestly priced and easily portable, so they make for handy gifts if you’ve jetted into town and want to keep your baggage at a minimum on your way out.
Finnish design institutions Iittala, Aarikka, Marimekko and Artek all have shops along the Esplanade, Helsinki’s most picturesque boulevard and one of the city’s most popular destinations for out-of-town visitors.
The spectacular light display in the Esplanade Park that runs between the North (Pohjoisesplanadi) and the South (Eteläesplanadi) offers a break from shopping, as do the many cafés and restaurants lining the street.
Iittala specialises in everyday design in glass- and kitchenware, ranging from stainless steel pots to cutlery and tableware. Here you’ll find well-made functional items that will retain their beauty despite daily use.
Aarikka started out in 1954 when its founder Kaija Aarikka designed five teak buttons for a dress; the buttons were a bigger hit than the dress. These days Aarikka is sold around the world and features jewellery and beads. It also sells practical items such as wearable reflectors that you can pin onto your coat or bag to keep you visible to traffic when you’re walking outside during the dark winter months.
Internationally renowned Marimekko actually has three shops along the Esplanade (including its flagship store at number 31) that stock its trademark bright prints in home textiles and stylish clothing.
In addition to furniture based on the "form-follows-function" principle, Artek sells smaller giftware items such as potholders and vases. Its founder, Alvar Aalto (1898–1976), is Finland’s Frank Lloyd Wright and many of Aalto’s classics, such as the Tea Trolley 901, have been re-cast with a splash of colour under new creative director Tom Dixon.
Stockmann department store – Finland's Harrods – features seven floors of goods and goodies from golf clubs to sweets under one roof. If you’re pressed for time, this is the place to go.
Argos Hall on the fifth floor sells Christmas cards, decorations, wrapping paper and more. On the fourth floor, you’ll find a good selection of Finnish souvenirs, including Moomintroll magnets, Aarikka jewellery and t-shirts. The Pentik section stocks all kinds of delights for home decoration, ranging from silk pillows and throws to candelabras and dishes.
Take the kids to Stockmann’s popular Christmas window on the corner of Aleksanterinkatu and Keskuskatu. The display of mechanical toy elves attracts a permanent group of pint-sized onlookers. There’s even a raised platform in front of the window to allow a better look at the wonders behind the glass.
For bookworms, Stockmann’s Academic Bookstore, where titles in over 30 different languages can be found, stocks fiction, non-fiction, poetry, geography, travel, history and kidlit.
Design Forum showcases new and classic design in an exhibition setting, while its shop sells work by top designers such as Harri Koskinen, Woodnotes and IvanaHelsinki. Stylish clothing, lamps, and lacquered birch serving trays are among the many items available. The onsite café, which serves coffee, tea, tasty cakes and sandwiches, provides hungry Christmas shoppers with a chance to refuel.
Good to know:
Anyone permanently residing outside the European Union and Norway can shop tax free in Finland (remember to take your passport with you), thus saving about 12 (max. 16) per cent on purchases of more than 40 euros. Stores with "tax free shopping" signs will provide customers with a receipt that can be used to claim the tax refund when leaving the EU, for example, at the airport.
Stockmann store hours:
Katja Pantzar is the author of The Hip Guide to Helsinki (WSOY, 2005), the first English-language insider’s guide to the Finnish capital. Further info: www.hiphelsinki.com
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