Countdown to Jokkmokk’s Sami market under way

Fewer than 3,000 people live in Jokkmokk, north of the Arctic Circle. But in just a fortnight, more than 40,000 visitors are expected to descend on the town for the annual winter market. The Local spoke to Birgitta Nilsson, who leads the team organizing the four-century-old event.

Countdown to Jokkmokk's Sami market under way
Jokkmokk's winter market. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

“Things are really hysterical at the moment,” laughs Nilsson, exactly two weeks away from the start of the 412th version of the Jokkmokk Market, which gets under way on the first Thursday of February.

“The preparations are going well but it sometimes feels as if things are spinning so fast that you don't have time to stop and think about it until after it's all over. It gets more and more intense every day in the run-up.”

The annual winter market in Jokkmokk was officially held for the first time in 1605 on the order of Duke Charles (later King Charles IX of Sweden), as an attempt to more or less keep Sweden's indigenous Sami community under his thumb – and to collect taxes.

Despite its somewhat dark beginnings, it has changed in the hundreds of years since and is today seen both as a gathering place for people all across the Sami lands of Sápmi to discuss current issues and culture – and a place for tourists to experience northern Sweden and its traditions, food and crafts.

Sausage being sold at the market. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

The market gets around 35,000 to 45,000 visitors every year, but the weather plays a key role. Jokkmokk is currently expected to see relatively mild temperatures of a few degrees below zero during the market days. It could be far colder. Nilsson remembers one year when the mercury dropped to all the way down to -40C.

“We had half the number of visitors then. The trains weren't running, and the buses did not dare to come. That is the downside of modern technology – the buses and cars are so sensitive they can't cope with the cold. An old trick up here is to place a rug over the engine,” she says.

When the market celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2005, it attracted global attention and a record 80,000 visitors. The numbers have dropped to normal levels since, but there is still plenty of interest.

“We have plenty of international visitors, most nationalities really. From Russia, Australia, Africa, most of Europe is represented,” says Nilsson.

A reindeer race at the market. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

Many come because they are curious about the Sami tradition of northern Scandinavia's indigenous people, who have lived for millennia in the lands of Sàpmi and were recently again put in the spotlight – for better or worse depending on who you ask – in Sweden's newest blockbuster crime series Midnight Sun.

Nilsson says she has not yet registered a 'Midnight Sun effect' on visitor numbers. However, the Nordic Noir drama aired on Swedish television only a few months ago and the Jokkmokk Market is so popular anyone keen on going usually has to book their travel and accommodation almost a year in advance.

“We haven't noticed it, but it wouldn't be totally unrealistic. We had a French journalist here before Christmas and he talked about how huge it was in France. So maybe next year,” says Nilsson.

As for Nilsson herself, who is currently busy making sure everything is set to run smoothly on February 2nd-4th, she is unlikely to get any rest until the last of the tens of thousands of visitors leaves Jokkmokk.

“The market is so much fun and so intense. But then when all the people leave you almost feel completely empty. Almost like some kind of hangover,” she laughs.

The 2017 Jokkmokk Market takes place from February 2nd-4th.