Christmas is coming in the backpack of a little elf
Puppet theatre Sampo puts on Christmas performance again
By Leena Virtanen
A cardboard box has been placed on a bench on the stage, with Ihana joulu ("Wonderful Christmas") written on the side. It is quiet in the small theatre. The previous performance has just ended, and the noise of the children has moved toward the Puotila Metro station.
It is time to take out the Christmas scenery again.
The elves of the Sampo Puppet Theatre have spent the whole year in their box, and on the next day it is their turn to take the stage once again. Sampo's Ihana joulu is a tradition dating back ten years.
There are a total of eight elves: hand puppets Ohvo, Aatu, Jussa, and Tiita, who peek into windows. Arhippa heats the sauna, and Iivari cooks porridge. On the evening of Christmas Eve they all gather at the home of old Jampero.
The main character of the entire performance is Teppana, a marionette, with the face of a curious child.
The director of the Sampo Puppet Theatre, and one of its founders, Marja Baric gently takes Teppana out of the box. She moves the strings carefully to get the right feel. Soon Teppana is scampering on the floor and jumping around happily, as always. The puppet has come to life again.
Baric says that the puppets and most of the scenery and props have been virtually unchanged during the years that the play has been performed. Even the paper angels made by the elf Jussa have remained intact.
"Puppets are made to last".
"We dye and sew all of the cloth ourselves", Baric says as she strokes a small blanket.
Three actors play the roles in the performance: Baric herself, Ilpo Mikkonen, who has been with the group from the very beginning, and Joosef Lakopoulos, a musician of a younger generation.
"Joosef's first task was to learn to play the kantele without looking at it", Baric and Mikkonen laugh. Actors in puppet theatres do not see what they are doing with their hands.
Mikkonen takes out a cotton snowman from a trash bag, and brings it closer to the stage. Somewhere a chequered top hat is found, and he places it in its right spot.
The sounds in the performance also wake up. Behind Jampero there is a row of wind chimes, and he - or actually, Lakopoulos hidden behind the curtain - strikes a Sámi shaman's drum from time to time. Jingle bells ring in the elves' window. The small kantele still needs tuning.
The production itself has not changed over the years. The rhythm lives according to audience reactions, and the performers know best how long their pauses can be without breaking the tension.
The Sampo Puppet Theatre was founded in 1977, and it is actually Helsinki's only year-round theatre dedicated exclusively to children. Many others have shut down during this time - most recently the Vihreä Omena ("Green Apple") puppet theatre.
Sampo's current venue is in the heart of East Helsinki, in the Puotila Shopping Centre, where a bank used to be. The public found their way there easily already before Puotila got the Metro.
The shopping centre has been under threat of demolition, the City of Helsinki Cultural Office has rented the space, and Sampo is a subtenant.
"People come in here as if they came to a store", Maija Baric says, praising the facility. In fact, Sampo does have things to sell. The theatre has long produced large amounts of special merchandise: books, recordings, puppet theatre products, and even mugs.
"It is often said that children's culture is not doing well in Finland, but Sampo is certainly doing well", Baric says, almost with embarrassment.
Last year Sampo published a DVD of the Advent Calendar TV show it produced for the Finnish Broadcasting Company in 1998. The programme, shown each evening from December 1st to Christmas Eve, depicted the adventures of Sampo's favourite puppets Tuhelo and Torvelo, and the tiny Duppaduulix. They meet the puppets that are familiar from the Ihana joulu production, who give advice on traditional Christmas activities, such as baking gingerbread, making candles, and heating the Christmas sauna.
The grandparents of Maija Baric were from a part of Karelia that was ceded to the Soviet Union, and many of Sampo's Christmas traditions are from that area. One of them is that the best gingerbread cookies are roses with round petals, which bring the smell of the summer into the midst of the cold winter.
Sampo has its own Christmas philosophy, according to which Christmas is not about presents, but rather about togetherness and caring. A person can be close without necessarily being a family member. The elves have their own special community, and the relationship between Tohelo and Torvelo is not quite clear. Are they siblings, cousins, or friends?
And does it matter? Not as long as there is just one Tohelo or Torvelo to share Christmas with.
Baric points out that today's families are often split up, and that putting too much emphasis on a traditional Christmas of an intact family can feel uncomfortable for many people.
The theatre fills up with children, and it will do so again many times before Christmas.
The children rush to sit on the benches, and then everything goes quiet. A wind chime rings, lights go on in the windows of the elves. The elf Teppana wakes up in his hammock. The performance begins:
"Did you know that there are people who have never seen an elf?"
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 12.12.2005
More on this subject:
BACKGROUND: Christmas takes care of half of the year
Puppet Theatre Sampo
LEENA VIRTANEN / Helsingin Sanomat