Helsinki reveals its history at Christmas

An early morning view of the old Helsinki ‘Kaivopuisto’ observatory
Lead text
Helsinki-born poet and spoken word artist Harri Hertell wrote about Christmas in the capital of Finland in 2018.

Helsinki reveals its history at Christmas

As the streets become empty
as the lights in windows dim
the city-dwellers vanish back home
to quiet villages or other towns
somewhere Christmas Peace may be declared
or neighbors sip mulled wine together
or sauna bathers swim in ice
or ski across fields in the days before New Year's
but it's all so remote when you sit at the Statue for the Shipwrecked
watching the cruise ships sail past Kustaanmiekka en route from Sweden
arriving like Christmas trees from Germany or Poland
you get them from huge sales by the motorways
and once more it hits us, we wonder how this year will go
will there be quarrels
too much punch for some
will past woes be dredged up
or dear memories of friends who we just had to see
in the only bar open on Christmas Eve
or just at the corner of a nearby street
and when we found out our friend's mother wasn't home
we welcomed him in
and we all ate together
and each got a mug of spiked glögi
even though we were kids
and no one would mention the father who'd died
or the mother in a hospital bed.

In the housing company sauna
the building manager prepares a Yule goat for the cellar steps
while the blazed salmon from the market hall waits in the fridge
the home-made mustard gifted by a colleague is on the table already
and Facebook's chips-and-beer vegans know which shop in the center
carries seitan ham this year
when my neighbor the entrepreneur tosses water on the rocks
the strain from a year's worth of work is released
and as we cool off we speak English, Stadi slang, dialects of Savo
we pore through the details of next spring's roof job
and recall how back in the day big log trucks would bring firewood to the streets
they were tossed through the small cellar windows
and then carried up to the apartments above
to each according to their needs
as each was able
when houses were warmed by wood.

Helsinki reveals its history at Christmas
when we hop in cabs after a long night
a young driver politely opens the door
as we swaddle our sleeping child in the back seat
we smell like pine needles
like liberated laughter
cheeks red we chat about the new taxi law
we wonder if we should make roe sandwiches back home
let's live for a minute as if we weren't on a poet's income
it feels good
to practice gratitude
to remember what we've been able to do this year
how lucky it is to hold down a job
and then it's time to tuck in our daughter
we giggle about how excited she was to find the almond in her morning porridge
my phone goes off with a Whatsapp message from my brother, he's at work
he says it's quieter than usual
that sounds good, coming from a police officer
even though we know that the rough stuff doesn't start until Boxing Day
when we've stared at the same faces a little too long


but tonight we are happy
we remember those who have passed
who used to live in this city
who shaped this Helsinki
whose courage to fill a gloomy little peninsula with light
gives us permission to rejoice in rest

in the flickering atmosphere of candles
the silent streets
where loosely floating specks of snow melt the moment they reach the asphalt
it remembers well every vehicle that left this place
it still awaits their return
as do we
who are here
at Christmas as well, for whatever reason
we fall asleep in our beds in peace
knowing that for once
everything went wonderfully.

Translation by Kasper Salonen

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Helsinki-born poet and spoken word artist Harri Hertell wrote about Christmas in the capital of Finland in 2018.