Celebrating Chinese New Year In Estonia

When you think of Chinese New Year, the snowy capital of Estonia isn’t the first place you think of for celebrating it. Yet Tallinn put on a big show to greet the new year as part of their annual Fire and Ice Festival.

The Chinese community in Tallinn is pretty small, but the Chinese embassy is reaching out to this Baltic state and helped fund a grandiose program of entertainment to welcome in the Year of the Snake. A big stage in Tallinn’s Kadriorg Park had Chinese acrobats, dancers, and musicians doing their stuff.

The Estonians also took part in their own way. A group of Estonian sculptors, plus an Egyptian guest, did a set of five ice sculptures for the theme of the New Year. The artists were Tiiu Kirsipuu, Aime Kuulbusch, Kalle Pruuden and Elo Liiv from Estonia, and Salah Hammad from Egypt. Their works are based on the Eastern Lunar calendar, the central sculpture being the Black Water Snake of this new year. Flanking it were sculptures representing Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

A huge crowd came out to watch the unveiling. The night was a mild one by Estonian standards, dipping down to about 0 Celsius (about 20 degrees Fahrenheit) with a steady snowfall. Last year it was -25 Celsius (-13 Fahrenheit). I’m glad I came this year and not last.

%Gallery-178530%Tiiu Kirsipuu, who sculpted the snake, told me that the ice came all the way from Lapland in northern Finland. Tiiu explained that the ice needs to be at least 40 centimeters thick and that Estonia is too far south to generally get ice freezing to that thickness.

I also talked with Salah Hammad, the visiting Egyptian artist. His usual works are comprised of stone, wood and metal formed into an abstract geometric style. This was Salah’s first time working with ice and he found it a tricky medium to control. Here he is next to his work below.

Once the sculptures were unveiled, the crowd pressed in to see them. Everybody felt the urge to stroke the figures. The festival organizers and artists didn’t seem to mind. I wondered aloud how long the figures would hold up to such treatment. One of the artists simply shrugged and said that impermanence was part of the medium.

As it grew later the mercury began to drop. The Estonians didn’t care. Living where they do they’ve made their peace with winter. Scattered all across the park were hundreds of snowmen, snowbears, snowdwarves and snowdragons. Eager kids were busily adding to the population. Snowball fights broke out everywhere. Parents warmed themselves at stalls selling mulled wine and everybody was wowed by the fireworks show the Chinese put on.

Just as it was really starting to get chilly, I managed to get invited to a reception at the Chinese embassy. Chinese cultural representatives told me how anxious they were to get their nation’s traditions better known in the West. Considering how much money they’d spent on a city of a little more than 300,000 people, I imagine they’re pretty serious. Expect more Chinese shows in your town soon.

Everyone felt the show had come off well and was in a good mood. Estonian artists, Chinese dancers, a Portuguese photographer, and a lone Canadian and Egyptian all mingled and enjoyed Chinese food and Spanish wine. Cultures and languages blended with ease.

I love this new international world!

This is the first in a new series: “Exploring Estonia: The Northern Baltics In Wintertime.”

Coming up next: Tallinn’s Medieval Old Town!

[All photos by Sean McLachlan]

ICE!: Behind the scenes at Gaylord Hotels’ holiday exhibit

Each holiday season, the four Gaylord Hotels in the United States import about 100 master ice carvers from Harbin, China’s Winter Festival to carve elaborate, life-size exhibits for the resorts.

I recently got to peek behind the curtain and watch the artists at work at the Gaylord Palms Resort near Orlando, Florida.

The ICE! exhibits are a wonder to walk through, with room out of room full of sculptures where everything – even walls and stairs – are made out of ice.

ICE! gets its start months before the exhibit premieres in November, with a theme and technical drawings to plan the exhibit. The carvers start their work about 30 days before ICE! opens.

Bringing in the ice is a logistical feat in itself. Each sculpture starts as a 400-pound ice block trucked to Orlando from Adel, Georgia. The timing of the ice’s arrival is carefully planned because all of the colors in the exhibit are added when the ice is frozen and not on-site.

Larry Walter, one of the show’s on-site producers, said two to four trucks of ice are delivered each day, with largely clear and white ice being delivered at the beginning of the process and the colored ice coming to add the finishing touches later.

The artists start the carving with chain saws to shape the ice. Fine detail work is done with small chisels and other hand tools.

All this work happens in rooms at the hotel’s convention center that are chilled to 9 degrees Farenheit. Visitors to the exhibit are loaned parkas to walk through.

This year’s ICE! exhibit at the Gaylord Palms has the theme “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” The rooms are set up as if you are walking through the poem. The whole thing is lit and musically scored like a show.

Once the exhibit opens, most of the artists return to China. But a team of about 10 stays behind at each resort to do touch-up work and be on call to take care of any mishaps. Walter said guests usually can’t resist touching the sculptures, and things do wind up breaking off from time to time.

The other Gaylord hotels have different ICE! themes. The Gaylord National near Washington, D.C. has “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” The Gaylord Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee has “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” And “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the theme at the Gaylord Texan near Dallas, Texas.

There are a couple of popular features that make their way into each ICE! exhibit, regardless of the theme. There’s always a “slide room” with ice slides for kids (and some adventurous parents) to play on. And ICE! always ends with a life-size Nativity, done completely in crystal clear ice.

The ICE! exhibits all open in mid-November. You can save a few bucks on tickets if you buy them online in advance at the Gaylord Hotels Web site.

Here’s a video look at my behind-the-scenes visit to ICE!:

I asked Walter what happens to the sculptures after the exhibit closes in early January. He said everything is bull-dozed, crushed and moved out to an area of the resort’s parking lot to melt, which usually takes just two days in Florida.

Winter festivals in the Midwest

What is it about snow that just makes us want to play in it? A fresh, fluffy layer of snow means snow angels and snowmen, building forts and having snowball fights. And for some people, it also means making really, really big snow sculptures like these found on WebUrbanist.com.

To see some smaller, but no less impressive, snow sculptures in the Midwest, check out one of the area’s many winter festivals.

In Ohio, the Toledo Zoo Frozentoesen offers a whole month of special winter events at the zoo, including ice carving, free admission days, and animal interactions.

The Madison Winter Festival, which takes place from February 19 to 21 in Wisconsin, goes beyond just spectator sports. In addition to ice and snow sculpting, the event features some pretty hardcore winter sports like cross country skiing, speed skating, 5k races, snowshoeing, and bike racing over snow.

In Michigan, head to Bavarian-themed Frankenmuth for Snowfest. Held January 27 to February 1, the fest features snow and ice sculpting and a huge warming tent with traditional German food, music and drinks. And as someone who has been there I can say that not only is the event a very fun time, but you’d be surprised how quickly a few pints of beer and some really badass snow sculptures can make you forget the bitter cold.