Estonian Christmas market offers anti-crisis cheer
Locked in one of Europe's deepest recessions, Estonians in dire need of some anti-crisis cheer are flocking to their capital's annual Christmas market, a magnet for locals and tourists alike.
Spread across the centre of Tallinn's picturesque Old Town, the market showcases the hugely popular handicraft traditions of this small Baltic nation of 1.3 million people.
"Despite the recession there are plenty of customers. But you can see times are hard because of the increase in the number of thieves, who act quickly, like rabbits," Mahe Jarmut, a grandmother from the island of Saaremaa, wearing traditional costume and a sheepskin jerkin to fight off the winter chill, told AFP.
The Estonian economy is forecast to contract a whopping 14 percent this year after a spectacular boom turned to bust. After growth of 10.4 percent in 2006 and 6.3 percent in 2007, the economy started shrinking in 2008 as a property and credit bubble burst and consumption withered.
From her small wooden stall, Jarmut sells objects carved by her family from boiled and stripped juniper wood, from honey spoons to tables, with price tags from two to 160 euros (three and 230 dollars).
The Christmas market -- a custom in many European capitals -- is particularly vibrant in Tallinn, attracting between 150,000 and 200,000 people every season. Finns and Swedes seeking out goods cheaper than back home are big fans, as are neighboring Russians who've long flocked to this fairy tale destination.
"Around half our customers are foreigners," said stall holder Piret Lakspere.
She sells woollen and other wear inspired by traditional clothing of Nordic hunters, fishermen and sailors. In a possible antidote to recession blues, some "contain symbols believed to protect the wearer from harm and bad luck," she said.
And to beat the winter blues, other stalls sell spiced hot wine and traditional Estonian Christmas fare of pork, black pudding and sauerkraut.
The square around Tallinn's town hall has been a trading hub for centuries.
It is also reputed to have been the site of the first recorded Christmas tree, raised in 1441 as part of a winter ritual where unmarried merchants and single women danced around the tree and later set it on fire.
Despite hard times, traders again snapped up the little Christmas huts, which stand for a month and one week, until January 7 to cater to the Russians who celebrate Orthodox Christmas on that date.
The huts rent for the equivalent of 2,400 euros -- a hefty sum more than three times the average monthly Estonian salary, but a once-a-year opportunity for small-time craftsmen to make a killing, given the market's popularity.
Transport firms running coaches from the Russian city of Saint Petersburg have this year even boosted their service by 60 percent.
"I work here from morning to evening every day without a break," said Jarmut. "I miss Christmas and New Years Eve with my family on the island, but I don't complain -- this is my share for the wellbeing of our family."
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