Today was the first day of Kiruna’s winter market. This is a motley collection of market stalls – all things woollen (socks, gloves, hats, jumpers), warm slippers, boots, anything you can make from a reindeer, skins and furs, meat and cheese, freshly made northern breads, craft (from iron, bark, or anything from a reindeer), jewellery, deep freeze plastic bags, toffee and donuts, kitchen tools, baskets, dog bowls, wooden spoons, brushes, hot dogs, and something you definitely need in a cold climate – forty different kinds of colour casing for your i-phone.
As always, the market is well-visited, and the atmosphere is a good one. People hang around despite the temperature, chatting over a hot dog, trying on hats, saying hello to the stall holders. Some of them they see every year – these are itinerant sellers, travelling so far across Sweden that they connect distant communities like a human internet. Some of them are well known – for instance, the man in a cowboy hat that sells his own country music CDs, with a clockwork puppet that dances along to the recording . All that dancing must keep him fit – he doesn’t seem to have aged over the years. Perhaps he’s clockwork too.
Jokkmokk winter market is the largest and most traditional of the winter markets up here. It takes place at the beginning of February, and the temperature there can easily dip into the minus 30s. It’s traditionally a Sami winter market, but although there are many Sami stall holders there are many other kinds of things for sale as well. We travel three hours’ drive there every year, though we struggle to find anything to buy. We go because it’s a tradition and the journey there is a large part of the pleasure. On the way there we see swathes of sparkling cold snow over forests of stunted trees in a pale blue sky, and on the way home there is the dark starry sky and the possibility (only the possibility) of northern lights. This year the stops on the dark road on the way home were all to lean against the car door and look up at a wonderful Milky Way.
The number of people at Jokkmokk market is far greater than the amount sold – the avenue of stalls is a great public promenade – crowded, cold, and full of reindeer skins. A famous character at the market is ‘Wild Hasse’ who sells reindeer meat, and skins and furs, and dresses like an old style fur-trader of the wild west. Spotting him every year at the market street, his beard covered in ice, is like meeting an old friend. And it’s a nice feeling that your friends and relatives hundreds of miles away will have had the same meeting a few months before.
The winter market is a deep-rooted tradition, from a time when communities relied on the traders for their household needs. Nowadays there is nothing they sell there that you couldn’t buy from a shop, but the habit refuses to die. People seem to have the feeling that this is a community event that should be supported – an opportunity to see and be seen, to reconnect with passing traders, to eat a hot dog and buy this winter’s new pair of gloves.
The number of different kinds of gloves and socks you can buy at this market is beyond your wildest imaginings. These are socks for every occasion: they include ‘hunting socks’, ‘fishing socks’ and ‘snowscooter socks’ . No need to do it yourself – let your socks take the strain. This year my gloves are inner gloves. I think they are ‘photography gloves’, and I’m hoping they’ll take some very good pictures.