Finding Saint Lucia

Here’s a confession: I used to love watching beauty pageants. When Miss New Zealand was crowned Miss Universe and then went on to marry an All Black* I remember thinking ‘Could life possibly get any better than this?’ (it was 1986 and I was 8).

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Lorraine Downes – she always woke up looking like this

So I quite like it when a person is selected from a group of applicants and not only wins but is given a crown. A crown! Which is why Miko and I braved the cold and went to see Saint Lucia last Saturday night.

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The celebration of Saint Lucia is popular with Swedish-speaking Finns and is marked on 13th December. This was once thought to be the winter solstice and some elements of the festival still celebrate the bringing of light after the darkest day.

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We met some friends and had dinner at the Christmas Markets before waiting with a large crowd for Lucia’s appearance. A TV screen in Senate Square broadcast the 2-hour service happening inside Helsinki Cathedral, including the crowning of Lucia.

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Hundreds of girls apply to be Lucia each year and the winner is decided by popular vote after a panel selects the top ten. Lucia needs to be musically gifted and her role in Finland is to bring light, joy and good cheer during the long, dark Nordic winter.

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After being crowned, Lucia descends the stairs from Helsinki Cathedral to her horse-drawn cart

The original Saint Lucia was born in 283 and there was an attempt made to burn her when she refused to give up her virginity to her future husband, choosing instead to devote her Friday nights to Christian scholarship. But Lucia did not burn and now wears a crown of lights upon her head.

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Another story credits Lucia with helping Christians that were hiding from the Romans and suggests her crown of candles is a result of needing to have her hands free as she brought food to them in the catacombs. So practical Lucia!

Modern-day Lucia is still associated with charitable acts and collects money to donate to worthy causes.

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Whatever the reason for her crown of lights, it’s a good reminder to all Finns that there is light beyond the winter darkness, as Lucia and her followers parade through the cold December streets. (Yes I did squeal when I saw her).

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And do I still watch beauty pageants? No. I guess you could say… I saw the light.

*All Blacks = New Zealand’s national rugby team

St Lucia – Wikipedia

The Chosen One – This is Finland

Porvoo, according to Frida

Over a couple of drinks last week we realised our friend Frida was going home to Porvoo for the weekend, the very town we were planning to visit. Just 50km east of Helsinki it’s an easy bus-ride away and Frida offered to be our tour guide.

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Porvoo is Finland’s second-oldest town and was given city rights sometime around 1380 – which blew my mind because it is believed that the first Polynesians only arrived in New Zealand around 1300.

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It was a beautiful, blue-sky day but fresh at only zero degrees. We wandered around the Old Town and visited an amazing toy shop; a quick poll revealing that yes, Miko and I agreed this was the best toy shop in the world.

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We stopped by the home of national poet, Johan Runeberg, a Swedish-Speaking Finn. Frida regaled us with tales about how he devoted a good part of his later years to drinking, which led to his wife writing most of his work and him returning home one night so inebriated he drove his horse and cart straight into the river.*

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Frida also answered my questions about Swedish-speaking Finns as Porvoo is a bilingual city and our visit coincided with Swedish-speaking Week. For some reason it’s hard for me to get my head around but she was very patient, even when I asked her twenty minutes later, ‘So when did your family arrive in Finland?’ to which she reiterated that they are Finnish, not Swedish, they just happen to speak Swedish (and Finnish and English).

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The Old Town has some great shops to visit, including antique and design stores. As we looked for lunch we noticed snails feature on many of the menus but opted instead for pizza and risotto in a warm restaurant.

IMG_3825After lunch we headed to Porvoo Cathedral which Frida told us had recently had a fire in the roof. The man who was found to have started it was rewarded with a lengthy jail sentence*.

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A boat hangs inside the church

We walked back down the hill through streets lined with old wooden houses, peering into windows (me) to admire reindeer pelt-covered seats set in front of warm fireplaces. I stopped in at vintage store Doris & Duke and bought some snowflake leggings while the others huddled outside.

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The paint on some of the buildings is red ochre and so old that it will leave a powdery substance on your hands when touched.* We dutifully rubbed the outside of people’s houses to see if we could remove some of the paint ourselves.

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After all this walking, snooping and rubbing it was time for a treat and so we stopped in at Helmi Cafe which is one of those cafes you often find in small Finnish towns. It’s as though you have entered someone’s private home as you wander through connecting rooms until you find the place you want to sit.

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In honour of Frida, Johan Runeberg and Porvoo itself we finished our tour with a round of Runeberg tortes – a fine way to complete our cultural exchange and more fun than riding into the freezing river.

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*Source: Frida

Runeberg Torte