This past Friday was one of those days when Finns are treated to a free holiday thanks to this being an officially Christian nation. Friday was Epiphany, a religious holiday that is totally unfamiliar to a totally lapsed Baptist such as myself. Still, as a quick look at Wikipedia will tell you, Epiphany is celebrated by many non-protestant Christians as the day that three visitors from the East arrived at baby Jesus’ cow shed, bearing gifts.
The fact the Magi didn’t show up until January 6th would be surprising for many folks back home (or at least Baptists), since I suspect most Americans moved on from Christmas already a couple of weeks ago and have now set their sights on Groundhog Day. Or maybe the Super Bowl.
In Finland, the holiday is called Loppiainen, which basically means “the ending”, and though it does commemorate the visit of the Three Wise Men, in reality it’s typically the day when families across the land take down their Christmas trees and decorations. My family often hangs onto our tree longer, waiting to throw it out only after almost every needle has dropped and what’s left is ready to spontaneously combust.
As on Christmas Day itself, stores are closed for Loppiainen. Except, maybe not any more. This year, storeowners in parts of Finland received special permission to stay open on Friday because the opportunity for commerce was just too great to pass up.
January 6th may be Epiphany for predominately Lutheran Finns, but it is Christmas Eve for Russians, who being largely Eastern Orthodox follow their own religious calendar. It’s a huge holiday for Russians and a great excuse for dashing over to Finland to take advantage of the after-Christmas sales here. It was reported that on Thursday alone 50,000 Russians passed through border crossings in southeast Finland, an all-time one-day record.
This trend has exploded in recent years. Finland lies less than 180 kilometers (115 miles) from St. Petersburg, a metropolis with a population equal to all of Finland (about like that of Boston) and has become a shopping mecca for newly affluent Russians. As strange as it might seem to me, the prices of popular must-have items such as iPads are supposedly lower here than in the Russian homeland, enticing more and more Russians to come here to shop. And, they do shop. In a Helsinki mall, a Russian teenager interviewed by a Finnish newspaper explained that she had 2000 euros (2500 dollars) to spend on her holiday visit here. Or at least, she continued, her parents were hoping it wouldn’t be more than that.
It is all very different from when I first came here in the early 1980s. In those grimmer Cold War days, the few Russians I saw in Helsinki where usually gazing out at the city through the foggy windows of clunky busses operated by Intourist, the official Soviet travel agency founded by Joe Stalin, as they made their way to the (formerly) leftist-affiliated Hotel Presidentti, the main accommodations for Soviet visitors back then.
Out on the street, Soviet-era Russian visitors always traveled as a group, and I still recall seeing them standing, as a group, before a shop window staring at Western goods they could never hope to buy. There was, however, at least one store in those days where Soviet tourists could afford to shop – Anttila, a discount place just around the corner from Hotel Presidentti and apparently within the hard-currency budget of visitors from across the Iron Curtain.
Now nearly 30 years later, Russian visitors come in far greater numbers and are more likely to arrive in their own SUV, not packed in a grungy bus. And they are no different than any other foreign visitors to Helsinki, except they don’t come only in the warm summer months. And I suspect they spend more money than the average tourist in Finland, reflecting how live has improved for Russians compared to the 1980s, or at least for some.
Anttila is still around, though today it’s a quite normal department store chain. Other shops, such as Tarjoustalo and Hong Kong, have taken Anttila's place as discount retailers, though I suspect these shops are not feeling the boost from the Russian holiday trade nearly as much as fashionable and sprawling Stockmann and other swanky stores.
No doubt, the overall boost to sales is good news for the Finnish economy and certainly a big enough incentive for stores to open their doors on Epiphany for those visitors from the East who aren't bearing gifts, but instead looking to buy some.