Tierna tradition in Oulu, Finland

Who can say where the Three Wise Men from the East we read about in biblical Christmas stories went after having been to the land of Judea? Ask anyone in Oulu, the capital of northern Finland, where everyone knows the answer. Up there in the north, by the shores of the arctic Baltic sea, the Wise Men still walk among us at Christmastime, telling their story in the form of an ancient pageant.

Based on stories in the Bible, the legend of the Three Kings of the Orient was born in the Middle Ages. The Kings were particularly worshipped in Cologne, where their remains are still kept in a richly decorated shrine.

The worship that spread among the common folk included a play featuring songs about the Three Kings. Gradually the play, which was first performed in Latin, began to be given in the common tongue, and its success was given. As it spread from one country to another the play also changed in character. The Star Boys pageant as it is known today in Oulu is an offshoot of this old European tradition ("The Epiphany Carol singers").

The Church took a very negative stand towards the secularised pageant, particularly after it became increasingly evident that the most viable form of the tradition involved groups of boys going begging from door to door, asking for money or some other compensation for their performance – and the boys certainly did not always abide by the laws of decorum while going from house to house.

The Star Boys pageant came to Sweden from Germany by way of Denmark in the 17th century, and the first written records of Star
Boys performing in Finland are from the early part of the 19th century. The first account of a Star Boys performance in the Oulu region is from 1873.

The pageant quickly established itself as a part of Christmas in Oulu. The boys in less well-off families formed Star Boys groups who went from door to door performing the play, hoping for a fee. Taking the play on the road every year was a major adventure for the boys. Some groups put a lot of effort into honing their skills, while others were content just to get through the performance any which way they could, the monetary reward uppermost in their minds. Fights between the groups were common, especially if outsiders ventured onto the established home turf of another group, the town having been carefully divided into territories between the groups.

The Star Boys tradition has survived to the present day in the Oulu region. Today, you are most likely to come across Star Boys in a restaurant or café setting, where the chances of good pay are better. Getting paid for the performance is still an important part of the Star Boys tradition.

The people in Oulu are proud of the tradition, as witnessed by the annual Star Boys competition. All performers in the traditional category are boys whose voices have not yet broken. Other hopefuls are also given a chance, which is why even girls have the possibility to show off their singing talent today. There is also a category for modern, modified Star Boys plays. One of them has even featured a well-trained robot in the role of a Star Boy,
Oulu being known as a high tech city.

In its current form, the Star Boys group consists of four characters: King Herod, King of the Moors, the Knight and the Star Twirler, known in Finnish as Mänkki. You can recognise Herod by his red cape and the King of Moors by his black outfit and blackened face. The Knight always wears a soldier’s outfit.

The story has changed considerably in the course of centuries, and the sequence of events is no longer quite logical. The scenes of the play depict a battle for power between the two kings, Herod and the King of the Moors, the search for the three Magi, an account of the birth of baby Jesus and the murder of the innocent children in Bethlehem. The Knight also describes his
bravery in many wars. Later on, a eulogy was added to the play praising the virtues of emperor Alexander, the Grand Duke of Finland in the 19th century.

At the end of the play, the singers thank the audience and ask for a contribution. The boys sing carols for as long as it takes the Knight to mingle among the crowd and collect a handsome fee.