Aside from Atlanta where I live, Raleigh, North Carolina is by far the city in this country that I have visited the most times. The reason is the Scandinavian Christmas Fair, to which my Vasa Drängar choir and I have been invited to perform since 2006.
The first Scandinavian Christmas Fair was started in 1996 by the Carl Larsson Lodge of the Vasa Order of America. It was called “Vasa Julmarknad” and was held at the Quail Hollow Community Swim and Tennis Club. It had about 300 visitors. In 1999 SWEA (the Swedish Women’s Educational Association) joined Vasa as co-organizers, and in 2003 they moved the fair to the NC State Fairgrounds and renamed it to “Scandinavian Christmas Fair.”
Saturday December 6, 2014 was rainy, but it turned out to be a great day for the Scandinavian Christmas Fair. The rain poured down, but that did not keep people from coming. About 1600 were in attendance, maybe a record high. This “Julmarknad” is a celebration of the rich traditions of the Nordic countries Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. For many it has become an annual holiday tradition.

Scandinavian specialties
There are always homemade Scandinavian foods such as meatballs and gravlax and delicious Swedish-style waffles. Vendors offer unique crafts and gifts from all over Scandinavia. You’ll find everything from knives to quilts to crystal glass to jewelry and of course Christmas ornaments. And there is pottery, linen, Dala horses, chocolate, cookies, licorice (Scandinavians just love licorice!) and loaves of delicious homemade breads.
Rae Gulick is the driving force of the whole thing. Without her, this Julmarknad probably wouldn't take place year after year. She told me a story from 2002: Raleigh experienced a really bad ice storm four days before the fair. No one had electricity for days. Most of the organizers had to improvise ways to prepare the food for the fair. Rae herself had to make 10 gallons of pea soup on her garden grill. It showed to be delicious —people loved the soup because it had a great smoky flavor! Luckily the electricity came back to the venue the night before Saturday’s fair, though not everywhere in the city. That year a lot of people came to the fair because there was warm food available!
Kids love this fair. Several Pippi Longstockings can be seen in the crowd, with their red hair and protruding braids. Children full of expectation pull up candy bags at the “fiskdamm.” Other kids sit in a ring and listen to “Pippi’s Story House.”
And then the Lucia arrives. The stunning, traditional Swedish Lucia Procession everyone has been waiting for is here. The whole place is now packed with people. The Lucia (12-year-old Kelly Berg) with a crown of candles, walks up to the stage followed by about 25 kids of different ages, including attendants, tomtar and starboys. They sing traditional Swedish Christmas songs, sometimes with some assistance by us Vasa Drängar, for the moment lightly disguised in tomte hats. The audience loved it! (That is, they loved the kids’ singing.)

Music and dancing
What would a great Julmarknad be without music and folk dancing? Every year ScanDans, Raleigh’s own Scandinavian dance group, performs great dances from all five Scandinavian countries. The dances are beautiful, colorful, temperamental and sometimes very funny. For instance, “Oxdansen” (the Dance of the Oxen) is a controversy between two old men, who try more or less dirty tricks to overthrow each other.
Music throughout the day includes not only traditional Scandinavian folk music, but also songs by Povel Ramel, Tom Lehrer, Carl Michael Bellman, Evert Taube and much more, all provided by Triangle Spelmanslag, Nordic Lights, Vasa Drängar and The YellowBlue. Mimmi Fulmer, professor of voice and opera at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented a treasure trove of well-loved classical, sacred and traditional songs from Finland, Norway and Sweden.
At the very end of the day it was time for “Julgransplundring” (looting the tree). The kids came up on stage to undress the tree — especially the candy rats!
At 5 p.m. it was all over. Only the organizers and the vendors had to stay, take everything down, pack, load the cars, fill garbage cans. Three hours later the place finally looked like nothing had been going on.
And outside it was still raining.

Göran Rygert