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Christmas Village Is More Than Just A Place To Buy Gifts

Albert Hong January 7, 2017

Self-walking toys from Russia, wall decorations from Tibet and hand-woven clothing from Nepal.

These were a few of the internationally-based goods available at this year’s Christmas Village market in Philadelphia. The annual event ran from Nov. 24 through Dec. 24 with a preview weekend on Nov. 19 to accommodate the market’s move to City Hall after its original location, LOVE Park on John F. Kennedy Plaza, started its renovations earlier this spring.

More than 80 wooden booths in the enclosed center of City Hall hosted vendors selling everything from traditional bratwurst to Philly-style pretzels, with inspiration coming from the deep history of traditional German Christmas markets, the most famous being the Christkindlmarket in Nuremberg.

In contrast, the Christmas markets that have now become an American tradition, in places like Philly, have much of a wider international presence in terms of both attendees and vendors.

Sylvia Echavarria, a Philly-based jewelry designer who runs Sylca Designs with her daughter Camila (the business’ name comes from the combination of their names), could be seen showing off her online-based business’ handcrafted jewelry created by Filipino artisans. Sylvia immigrated from Columbia in 1999 and with her experience as a sales representative in the fashion industry, she asked Camila, who graduated from Drexel University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a focus on marketing, if she wanted to start a business together.

That mother-daughter bond has kept Sylca Designs going strong for seven years now, and the business has been a part of the Christmas Village for five consecutive years.

But the business does more than just sell jewelry– the jewelry is primarily comprised of natural elements like wood and shell, and the family donates a percentage of its profits to help empower Filipino women through Kiva, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that gives out loans to women around the world.

“We want to make a statement with this jewelry,” Sylvia said.

Mark Metzelaar, another Christmas Village vendor and the Delaware-based owner of Silkroad Traders, a purveyor of handmade goods from Central Asian and Turkey, started his business after working in the Middle East.

That’s where his passion started for collecting textiles like rugs and carpets, which constitute much of what Metzelaar has for sale, in addition to ornate Turkish lanterns and handbags. Even with a hoarse and shaky voice, which is the result of spending 34 straight days outside in this market, he talked about how he won’t bother with anything synthetic or of cheap quality — that’s reserved for things like the carpet you step on in his booth.

The multicultural presence is something Metzelaar appreciates about the Christmas Village, having sold at the market for four years in a row now.

“Many of us know each other,” Metzelaar said, pointing to the vendor next to him selling handmade pottery from Nicaragua. “There’s this sort of camaraderie.”

Hani Michail sold some of the more popular holiday gifts — mouth-blown glass ornaments handcrafted by artisans in Egypt. Michail, who himself immigrated to Vancouver from Egypt, started Unique in 2001 and has been selling at the Christmas Village since 2012.

Michail’s hut catches the attention of passersby with its shiny glass ornaments, ranging in shapes from icicles to butterflies. Each ornament’s quality is something Michail takes pride, enthusiastically telling customers what the specific method of mouth-blowing entails, as well as the long history of Egyptian glass ornaments. The potential for creating something different every time the glass is heated is what drew him to the craft.

“This is endless art,” Mikhail said.

Aside from the art and festive glamor of the Christmas markets, the conversations that take place, involving the sharing of each other’s culture and backgrounds, are one of the core facets of the Christmas Village.

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