The tradition of the market’s Christmas tree, prominently in the center of Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square), was first placed in 1441, and is perhaps the oldest public Christmas tree display in the world. Alongside the market is an extensive cultural program, encompassing concerts, folk dances, and plays running throughout the season.
Tallinn Christmas Market is more than just a tourist draw, however; it can be read as a site where globalized capitalism, local tradition, and Estonian national iconography sit awkwardly against each other.
Daniel Miller, an anthropologist from University College London, describes Christmas markets as having become central to three of the biggest struggles that define being modern. One of these struggles is the problem of reconciling our desire to be citizens of the globe in its entirety without losing our sense of the specifics of local origins, or relation to the places we come from (Miller, 2017 – p 410). This was also something I experienced during my own visit to the Christmas market in Tallinn’s Old Town.
In addition to seeing an assortment of food stalls (selling mulled wine, fried potatoes, smoked meat, and other treats), I was struck by the variety and amount of different consumer goods on display. These included amber jewelry, noisy children’s Christmas toys, reindeer scarves, Viking dolls and a wide array of handcrafts and kitchen utensils. However, many of these items are peculiar choices to represent ‘Estonian tradition’ to tourists. Most Estonians would be quick to point out that there is no amber to be found naturally in the country - it must be imported from Kaliningrad or Lithuania. Similarly, there are no reindeer in the Estonian forests, and it’s a stretch to tie Viking symbolism together with Estonian Christmas traditions.
Some of these particular items on display, along with the design of the Christmas market, could be read as a way to market Estonia as part of a Germanic or more specifically ‘Nordic’ cultural space, avoiding the darker and more politically turbulent aspects of its 20th century history. Despite this, the Christmas market (and its associated cultural events), are claimed to represent an ‘authentic’, entirely unique Estonian culture that tourists cannot experience anywhere else. But, I wonder, is it really so radically different from another European Christmas markets, say in Dresden or Riga?
While the Tallinn Christmas Market is a fun event that provides a good reason to indulge in mulled wine and gingerbread, it also raises interesting questions about how we can understand ‘authentic’ culture in the context of tourist consumption, and how we can square the near-universal nature of Christmas festivals with the local particularities that such events claim to represent.
Anthropology encourages us to look deeper into these apparently simple or mundane activities and events, revealing contradictions and ideologies where most see only superficial displays. The discipline can highlight the nuances of how people communicate and how they choose to represent nations and cultures. In the case of Christmas, and Estonia’s Christmas Market, I’d like to go back and employ Miller’s words to summarise some of the odd tensions between the local, regional, and global that the season brings about:
“Christmas along with New Year have become the times when we imagine almost the whole world is celebrating the same festival at the same time, yet Christmas has also become the last refuge of locality and folk tradition or family tradition so that the only place where people know how to celebrate Christmas properly is the place that we originally come from. “ (Miller, 2017 – p 439)
Text: Kanchi Ganatra, MA Anthropology