19 December 2006

Star Boys

I’m not at all ready for Christmas. That is due in part to the fact that we’ve had almost no snow since the storm that buried us at the end of October. It also is due to the absence from my life of the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. Ordinarily, we take our CDs out immediately after Thanksgiving and gorge on descant for a month or more. They don’t always go back on the shelf right away after we’ve rung in the new year, either.

This year, I’ve had the Star Boys competition (tiernapojat) instead. Let me back up a minute to say that Oulu is well known for its eccentricity. Actually, it is making a decent living off its quirks. This is the city that hosts an annual Garlic Night food festival. One of the big events of the year is the Air Guitar World Championships. In March, there's the Ice Swimming competition, and in June, the Tar Rowing event on the Oulu River. Let’s not forget the statue of a tubby little policeman who “guards” the market square.

Then there are the epiphany boy carolers, better known as the Star Boys, who perform a play based on a medieval folk adaptation of the story of the Three Kings, or Wise Men, who follow the Christmas star. The tradition was imported from Sweden and ultimately from Germany, but the people of northern Ostrobothnia made it their own in the nineteenth century. In Oulu, Star Boys performances date to 1873. Oulu appropriated Star Boys in the way that Rovaniemi appropriated Santa Claus (more on that subject next week).

There are very precise requirements. The boys sing in unison. Their voices can’t have changed yet. Girls need not apply. The play “is always performed in the Oulu dialect, although a healthy mix of variations has begun to emerge in modern days.”[1] There are four characters. King Herod is dressed in a red cape. The King of the Moors wears a black costume and blackface. There is a knight in the employ of Herod, who often wears a blue cape and brandishes a sword at key moments. Finally, there is the “Star Twirler” known as Mänkki. I am not making this up.

The script calls for a certain amount of fighting, posturing, and boasting. The Church never approved of these folk performances, which were inclined to embellish the biblical narrative. Some parts of the story have been rearranged, and at some point in the nineteenth century, the play acquired an imperial coda when a tribute to Tsar Alexander was tacked on.

Traditionally, the boys travel about serenading the townspeople in exchange for money or some other type of prize. The photo up top was taken on the ground floor of the Stockmann department store. After their performance, I followed them up the escalator and noticed “a healthy mix of variation” from tradition; the Star Boy second from the left—the one with the blond pony tail—is a girl. I also saw Star Boys performing in Zakuska the other night. It is said that they do their most successful fund-raising in the city’s bars.

The music itself is entirely unlike the Christmas carols we know and love, or hate. It is a little like a stylized version of chant, and I have heard the word “pagan” used to describe it. I suppose it is an acquired taste. I’ll say that I vastly prefer it to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Joulupukki,” which I have heard twice or thrice.

Happy holidays!

[1] Look at Oulu: the Official Oulu Guide, p. 26.


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