First advice to visitors to Finland: don’t try telling your hosts that Santa Claus comes from anywhere else. Its Nordic neighbours of Sweden and Norway make especially spurious claims to be the home of the gentleman in question, but his official residence is in the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland. That’s it. Don’t argue.
It is appropriate, then, that the Finnish capital celebrates this time of the year, not so much with panache, but rather with a convivial festive warmth. This is the darkest time of the year, when the sun – if it appears at all – hovers above the horizon for a little less than six hours daily. Finns compensate with candlelit feasting and a range of cheering traditions. The fervent wish of Helsinki residents to wake up to a white Christmas is usually answered too, and this lends an extra magic to proceedings.
Central Helsinki is compact, built on promontories and islands on the Baltic coast. Most hotels are centrally located, and the sea and its bays and inlets are never far away.
Public transport is affordable and comprehensive, so although walking across town is both feasible and recommended, there is always the option of jumping on a tram, bus or metro train. And no matter how cold it is (temperatures at this time can easily drop well below freezing), there is always a well-heated café, restaurant, bar, museum or shopping mall near at hand.
The heart of the Christmas action is in the area radiating south from the main railway station, into the pedestrian street of Keskuskatu, along the Aleksanterinkatu shopping street – ‘Aleksi’ to the locals – and the parallel Esplanade Park to the quayside Market Square and historic Senate Square.
Never too late to skate
The skating rink – the Jääpuisto, or ‘Ice Park’ – in the railway station square is the first evidence of festive fun. Tap your feet to the music or warm up with coffee and hot chocolate at the rink-side café between skating spins, or just sit and admire the skills of the locals. Skates can be rented, and you can borrow sleds to keep your balance, and helmets, at no extra cost.
Kids love skating, and they’ll also enjoy the Christmas window at the Stockmann department store on the corner of Keskuskatu and Aleksi. The elaborately decorated window changes annually and its official opening, together with the switching-on of the Christmas lights in Aleksi, is a much-anticipated Helsinki family event.
Stockmann, a Helsinki institution, is the city’s biggest store and a good port of call for one-stop Christmas souvenirs or gift shopping. ‘Under the clock’ at the main entrance in Aleksi is a favourite rendezvous for friends meeting up in town, and Three Smiths Square opposite is the site of a colourful Christmas market. The mixed aroma of roasting chestnuts and glögi, a spiced wine served with almonds and raisins, has become an essential seasonal feature of this spot, and stalls sell gifts ranging from sweets to thick winter socks and pullovers.
Follow Aleksi down to Senate Square and you’ll find another lively Christmas market, the St Thomas’s Market (December 2–22), spreading in front of the majestic Lutheran Cathedral and surrounded by Russian-era neoclassical buildings. The cathedral is also the starting point for the Lucia Day procession, a special festival of light on December 13.
When the market here is in full swing, the music from the children’s carousel, the scent of fresh gingerbread cookies and cinnamon on hot porridge, and the colourful selections of handicrafts and homemade preserves are sure to lift the spirits. Stop off for coffee and a ‘Christmas star’ pastry at Café Engel on the square.
Move down to the park running through the Esplanade – ‘Espa’ – to discover Helsinki’s top design shops, forming a periphery of Helsinki’s Design District. Marimekko’s brightly coloured textiles and clothes, stylish bags and other accessories have never gone out of fashion since their 1960s conception, and they are more popular than ever with Asian visitors. In the depth of winter, Marimekko’s coloured tea-light holders are a classy, classic gift. Elegant glass by Iittala, which has its flagship store in Espa, including the ageless Ultima Thule range, curved Aalto vases and Oiva Toikka’s whimsical ornamental birds, are other perennial favourites.
From Espa, it’s easy to head down to the Market Square by the harbour and find the Market Hall, a good place to buy a sample of a Finnish Christmas dinner staple, namely gravlax, melt-in-the-mouth raw salmon cured with salt and dill and served here on squares of rye bread. The flower stands here and across town will be ablaze with poinsettia plants and hyacinths, both of which are popular table decorations.
Venture away from these central areas to discover more intimate and local shops and cafés, all of which exude a sense of Christmas welcome. Drop into the Tikau boutique on Korkeavuorenkatu, the street that thinks it’s a village, to browse the exquisite handicrafts, a hybrid of Nordic design ideas and Indian artisanship. Or head up to the northeast Kallio district to experience hipster bars and trendy vintage outlets.
“What’s great about Christmas in Helsinki? So many things!” says Henrietta Lehtonen, a Helsinki born-and-bred and a Kallio resident. “There’s something special about gathering to drink glögi in the cafés or playing board games in the cosy Kallio bars. People gravitate towards light, and that’s why the Ice Park is such a glowing haven. Everywhere indoors is well-lit, places where people gather spontaneously but as if by mutual agreement. And of course, it’s always warm indoors!”
The main holiday for celebrations in Finland is Christmas Eve (December 24), usually a time for visiting Santas to come knocking and hand out gifts for the children and for family dinner gatherings. Christmas Day is quiet and spent in or around the home, and it’s not usually until Boxing Day that people start to venture out to restaurants. A lull follows between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when fireworks light up the city skyline and Helsinki’s annual cycle kicks off again.