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Tierna Boys Tierna Boys

Tierna Boys in a yard at Isokatu 5, Oulu, in 1911–12. King of the Moors: Väinö Huotari; Herod: Väinö Vesala; The Star Twirler: Kalle Rinnekangas; The Knight: Aleksanteri Kiiskinen. Picture: The Northern Ostrobothnia Museum / Author Samuli Paulaharju

From mystery plays to Star Boys

The roots of the Star Boys tradition are in mystery plays performed in medieval Europe. At first, these plays which were based on Biblical stories and legends were performed as part of church liturgy. Later, the plays moved outside the churches and the subjects of these plays began to free themselves from restraints imposed by the Church. The plays were becoming secularized and Latin was replaced by vernaculars.

In the Nordic countries, mystery plays became the privilege of teenaged school children. They collected money to support them through school and for candles to light their winter evenings.

The Star Boys tradition has its Biblical origin in the so-called Adoration of the Magi. The Three Wise Men of the East were led to Jerusalem by the Star of Bethlehem to bow before the newborn King of the Jews. King Herod learned of the meeting and sent his soldiers to kill all boys of the age of two and under. (Matthew 2)

"Star singing" is frowned upon

The age of "star singing" in the Nordic countries is impossible to determine, but written records of the tradition go back to the 1600s. According to one record from Stockholm in 1655, a group of pupils were accused of walking around with a star during Christmas time and mocking the birth of Christ and other sacred subjects.

Early records of Star Boys in Finland can be found in the City of Helsinki Registrar's Office documents from 1797:

A bad habit has entrenched itself in our city and the surrounding areas: during Christmas, New Year and Epiphany, on the streets, in people's yards and homes, persons in disguise carrying stars, and so-called Santa Clauses who, in addition to being a general nuisance to people and incurring them unnecessary costs, frighten children and often others too. They are of no use and give rise to superstitious beliefs. They are indeed illegal, and therefore the Registrar's Office sees appropriate to ban any person in disguise, Star Boy or Santa Claus from walking about and trespassing in yards and going in homes at the risk of a fine of twenty talers.

Star Boys and Boxing Day Boys

Star Boys (Tähtipojat in Finnish) and Tierna Boys (Tiernapojat in Finnish) are two distinct plays that share a common heritage. The tradition has spread to the whole of Finland. In South-Western and Southern parts of the country, the name Star Boys is used. In the Häme area, Boxing Day Boys (Tapaninpojat in Finnish) is the preferred name, whereas in the East and North, Säärnä Boys and Tierna Boys, respectively, are most common. The Finnish words säärnä and tierna are variations of Swedish stjärnä, meaning star.

When the noblest of the holidays, Christmas, makes its way, the City of Kuopio will see many troupes of Säärnä Boys going from house to house, and they will continue this all the way until the January Market when they will receive kalakukkos, a traditional Savonian food made from fish baked inside a loaf of bread, from sellers at the market. (Suomen Museo magazine, 1896)

First Finnish Star Boy known by name was author Johan Ludvig Rubeberg (1804–1877), who in 1810, at the age of six, performed in a Star Boys' procession in his home town of Jakobstad.

Even on the last Christmas before his death, he recalled vividly how at the age of six he had gone around in his hometown with a Christmas star and got a heck of a lot of pocket money – told with his usual cheerful humor. (J. E. Strömborg, Biografiska anteckningar om Johan Ludvig Runeberg I, 1880)

At least at first, Star Boys performed in Swedish, although also Tierna Boys in Oulu did their plays in Swedish, at least in parts.

Tierna Boys in Oulu

First known record of Tierna Boys in Oulu is from Oulun Wiikko-Sanomat magazine on January 11, 1873. From the news article it can be induced that Tierna Boys were already a familiar and established, although frowned upon, phenomenon in Oulu:

The so-called Tierna Boys have been going from door to door displaying their tricks during this winter, as they usually do on Christmas. This custom we would not really wish to criticize if only their behavior in other ways were the way it should. But when one hears of the kind of obscene behavior they display while doing their rounds, it would be desirable to ban them from performing and thus protect the sanctity and purity of Christmas.

From King Herod to the Star Twirler

King Herod (Kuningas Herodes in Finnish: "The cardboard-crowned ruler of the whole troupe of white-shirted and soot-faced Tierna Boys." Herod travels to meet the King of the Moors and orders him to pray before him. He also orders his servant, the Knight, to travel to Bethlehem and kill all boys of the age of two and under.

King of the Moors (Muriaanein kuningas in Finnish): The second most important character in the play. He has to submit before Herod and bow to him.

The Knight (Knihti in Finnish): He is a servant of Herod, a horseman, acting out the slaughter on the orders of Herod and is rewarded with gold, silver and a blood-colored cross on his chest. The Knight's role is to collect the money he is asking from the crowd into his helmet.

The Star Twirler (Mänkki in Finnish): He is the Star Twirler. In the play he tells of the joyous message of a baby boy born in Bethlehem. At the end of the play the Star Twirler asks the audience for a short piece of candle to place inside his star.

The number of performers in Tierna Boys' processions in Oulu has settled to four. Still in the early 1900s, a fifth member could have been included – a hunchback from China called Kyppä.

"Can I come and sing…?"

"Herod he rode on his horses…"

"Look at that King of the Moors having to pray before Herod…"

"Horseman I am in war, and a brave soldier…"

"Thank you, thank you for your gifts!"

From bourgeois homes to school Christmas celebrations

Homes of the bourgeoisie and craftsmen were the most common performance venues in the early 1900s. Star Boys' processions went from door to door in those days.

The Osula building was a kind of regular hangout for us before we headed out to the district of Tuira or went by the barracks. The old canteen was on this side of the railroad tracks next to the prison, a yellow two-story building where we went to sing. (Master baker Ossi Kokkonen, born 1919)

Tierna Boys also performed in the harbor. Sailors aboard ships from overseas were initially scared of these visitors. A song could be sung in the middle of Kasarmintie street to people returning from work.

Schools have played a key role in preserving the tierna tradition. Nowadays, many school groups raise money for their school trip funds with their performances.

Jihänkis, helmets and swords

Jihänki (Finnish): A shoulder strap made of cardboard

The costumes and equipment of the Tierna Boys are likely based on the equipment of a Finnish Imperial Guardsman, and they were for the most part home-made.

The costume is also, of course, worthy of their status. Resting on a white shirt are handsome cardboard straps embroidered with gold and silver paper. They wear helmets decorated in the same fashion and wield terrifying swords in their hands. Sometimes they even wear tin plated chest armor. And what would heroes be without moustaches? Granted, they are grown with only the help of charred cork soot but twirled that more handsomely. The King of the Moors has a mighty black beard indeed. (Author Samuli Paulaharju, Oulun "tiernapojat," 1913)

The equipment had to be impressive. If they were too showy, one always had be on the lookout for jealous gangs who would smash or tear them apart.

Star Boy groups were spotted with many kinds of swords. They could be home-made from wood and perhaps coated with aluminum foil. Or, the swords had been borrowed from acquaintances or even the police. Veikko Kallinen reminisces how, in the 1930s, his gang "rented" their swords from the Ostrobothnia Jaeger Battalion in exchange for an appearance at the officers' Christmas party.

Competition between troupes of Tierna Boys was fierce, so the boys upgraded their equipment. Everyone wore new white shirts. Capes made their first appearance in Oulu. Beards were acquired from Bergdahl's book store. King of the Moors had a black beard, Herod sported a Gustav II Adolf beard and the Knight wore only a moustache. The Knight, who was armed, had an Åström workshop tin plated fish-scale armor. His spear and a volunteer fire department helmet were from Väinö Huotari's mother's storage, as were also their real swords. A four-pointed star was new and home-made. With these kinds of equipment the boys trumped all others. The troupe performed together for three years with the exception of the Star Twirler whose player changed occasionally. Money was shared evenly between the boys, including the Star Twirler. During one Christmas period, their earnings could get up to as high as 67 Finnish marks per performer, which was equivalent of a working man's one month's wage. (Source: Interview of Väinö Huotari)

Tierna – the star

Most important piece of equipment for the Tierna Boys was the tierna – the star. It had to spin and be able to accommodate a candle, preferably inside the frame. The points were coated with paper and the center usually had a religious image on it. Paper tassels were fixed on each of the points.

One of the tricks of assembling troupes was to look for boys who already had the equipment on hand because acquiring them was expensive and time consuming.

"If the boy had a star ready, he was in the group, even if he sang like a dead cow." (Martti Niemelä, Counsellor of Education, born in 1922)

In the fights that were bound to happen, the goal was to destroy the opposing group's star.

And then we fought. We retreated little by little to the cover of the park, and there in aisles flanked by bushy spruces fearsome tussles took place. Crowns were ripped; the Herods who were so proud just moments before were reduced to pathetic creatures whose shirts were torn at the back and had their faces scratched bloody. The star belonging to the Niittytulli troupe was crushed. Oskari Tapanila ripped it from the opposing group's Star Twirler and smacked it to pieces against a spruce tree. "Niittytulli's star is extinguished!," he exclaimed. (Author Antti Järventaus, Taivaallinen puuseppä, 1927)

Attitudes of the time and police control

In the early 1900s, as Russia was tightening its grip on power, an ordinance was written to the City of Oulu police statute making "Star Boy performances legal only with express permission from police authorities." Anti-Russian sentiments were evident in Tierna Boys' performances in the form of mock songs, for example. As Russia lost the war against Japan in 1904, a Tierna Boys group in Raatin ravintola restaurant in Oulu sang: "… it's a one, it's a niner, it's a zero and a four as the Japs pounded the Russkies' backs sore."

In the early days of independence, the police could intervene in the content being sung: songs praising Russia were banned and "Alexander II of Russia" was advised to be replaced with "Northern war hero Marshal Mannerheim."

A Tierna Boys play could be performed in the early 1900s only between Christmas Eve and Epiphany, but typically the groups were not patient and began performing already earlier.

Our group was caught this one time, and they took us in. They just laughed, but they did control the activity because after all it was forbidden by law to wear a disguise on the streets. (Onni Tolonen, born in 1922)

The number of groups performing after the wars grew so big and the quality got so poor that licensing criteria were tightened. Tierna Boys were required to visit the police department for a test performance, and troupes whom were passed were given written performance permits with not only each performer's name on them but also the area where they were allowed to perform and for how long the license was valid.

You can hear so many discordant Herods and other Star Boys out and about that there should be some sort of qualification process. Diplomas should be given out so that people would learn to take the right groups to their rooms and the boys would themselves get used to the fact that any old busking won't cut it. (Panu, Kaiku magazine, Dec 9, 1947)

Between 1966 and 1968, Tierna Boys eager to perform were required to file for an approval for the police from the City Music Board. The new police decree of 1969 allowed Tierna Boys to go from house to house without permits.

Differences of opinion within troupes

Differences of opinion within Star Boys groups could lead to changes in lineup or "resignations." The reason might have been, for example, bullheadedness in learning one's part.

Eino Lipponen's informal essay from 1953 details how Rahikais-Sakari's troupe broke up. Rusa-Vilikki explains:

I'm not going to tour with this kind of group. We've rehearsed for weeks, and that Simppa messes up his whole part. Just in the previous place we were in he confused the donkey for the one swaddled in the manger and didn't realize to correct himself, although I kept telling him to. I can get into a troupe where you don't have to bury your head in the sand out of shame.

Arguments could also spring from performer choices. Many started their career as the Star Twirler, and the highlight was a promotion to play Herod's part. Lauri Pohjola wrote in 1948 of a dispute over casting:

Jussi argued he should play Herod because his voice was more elegant and he had a real policeman's sword and that he has always had to play the part of the Star Twirler and that it's time for a promotion! I, on the other hand, had played the King of the Moors, so I had experience being a King!

In the end, the boys decided their argument by finger pulling.

The Tierna Boys in literature

The vitality of the Tierna tradition in Oulu is evident from the fact that several writers from Oulu have dealt with the subject in their books, both in memoirs and novels. The first mention, set in the year 1882, is found in author Ilmari Kianto's (1874–1970) memoirs Papin poika (1928). In addition to King Herod and the King of the Moors, three other Magi make their appearance in Kianto's memoirs; therefore it is not about the same play that exists today.

In its present form, the Tierna Boys play is described in V.A. Koskenniemi's (1885–1962) memoirs Onnen antimet. The work was published in 1935, but the memoirs are set in 1890. Koskenniemi recounts how each year the recurring, ceremonially mysterious drama made an impression on his young mind:

When the boys arrived on our doorstep from the frosty evening stomping snow off of their shoes and blowing on their hands, dressed in their white shirts with golden shoulder straps, crowns, swords and huge stars, it was like the whole New Testament and half of the Old was coming alive and making its way through the door.

In some works, the Tierna Boys give local color to the story. For example, in Matti Hälli's (1913–1988) book Lassinkallio (1959), the Tierna Boys also carry the story forward. In Arvi Järventaus' (1883–1939) novel Taivaallinen puuseppä (1927), Oulu is not mentioned by name and different districts have been given cover names. The Tierna Boys, however, tied the story securely to Oulu. Teuvo Pakkala (1862–1925) also mentions the Tierna Boys in Oulua soutamassa (1886) and Vaaralla (1891).        

We will meet at the tiernaristi

risti (Finnish, Oulu slang) = street crossing; the stretch of road between two crossings

(Author Jukka Ukkola: Ookko nä, Oulun murteen sanakirja)

For the more elder Oulu natives, the familiar tiernaristi was formed by all the businesses that were situated on the corner of Kirkkokatu and Saaristonkatu and in the immediate vicinity. The name tiernaristi was coined by the CEO of H. W. Snellman, Rolf Grönlund. In their advertisement campaigns the establishments, which represented different branches, promised the following: "… the businesses will pull together to help you with the difficult task of finding Christmas presents, …"

The first tiernaristi opening was held in 1950. Initially, the "star establishments" included the Antelli confectionary store, electricity appliance store Hammarin Sähkö Oy, bookshop Kirjola and hardware store H. W. Snellman. The annual Christmas time opening became a veritable national celebration, "the event of the year," which drew thousands of spectators. In conjunction with the opening, the businesses revealed their Christmas time shop windows. The original idea waned by the 1970s.

Translation: Miika Rantonen

Tiernakaupunki Oulu – Tierna Town Oulu