It wasn’t until 1927 that Santa Claus’s home address became know to the general public. His exact whereabouts, first divulged on a Finnish children’s radio program, is Arctic Circle, Napapiiri, near Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland. Since 1950, he’s been holding open house there every day and each year some 400,000 people, young and old, come to visit him. Recently, I was among them.
I could have gone in the dark, arctic winter when the evergreen trees are weighted with snow, the sky glows with a strange half-light and only the survival clothing the tour operator provides would keep me from turning into a two-legged ice cube. This is, in fact, when two-thirds of Santa’s visitors arrive, the pace picking up as Christmas approaches. In December, Rovaniemi airport is renamed ‘The Official Airport of Santa Claus’ and as many as seven charter flights can be counted on the tarmac at any one time, waiting to fly Santa Claus day trippers back to their home cities across Europe.
But after making a list and checking it twice, I decided to join the other third, the ones who prefer to call on Santa during the arctic summer, when the sun shines down almost endlessly on the bright blue rivers and grassy marshes around Rovaniemi and I could combine the visit with a boat ride to a reindeer farm. Although I might suffer mosquito bite, frostbite would not be an issue. So I bought a tour called ‘A Day in Magical Lapland’ from Lapland Safaris and left Helsinki’s airport at 7:30 one morning in late August. My guide met me at Rovaniemi airport an hour later and we drove straight to Santa’s Village, just a few minutes away.
The arctic circle runs right through Santa’s village and is easy to spot because it’s a stripe of white paint with ‘arctic circle’ written on it in several languages. The Village is a tiny cluster of log cabins with steeply pitched roofs built around Santa’s post office. Letters posted here (choose either ‘immediate’ or ‘Christmas time” delivery) bear Santa’s stamps and his own postmark. This is also where Santa’s mail comes, about 700,000 letters a year. The rest of the village consists of cafes and restaurants, and as every day is Christmas here, shops selling Christmas baubles, handicrafts, Lapland dolls and reindeer-themed articles. You can buy Santa Claus wine, a blend of arctic-grown berries, which is 11.5 proof and so does not account for Rudolophs red nose.
Santa was all alone in his Chamber when I arrived, a giant with a long white beard and hands the size of tennis racquets. He was seated on a platform between a huge Christmas tree and a huge fireplace. Opposite him, an assistant held a camera. Santa didn’t even have to ask me where I was from…he knew, which I found surprising. “Why are you surprised?“ he asked, “after all I AM Santa Claus.” I admitted I was also surprised at how easy it had been to see him. At the moment, there was only myself and a woman with two children who had just come in from the post office. “You should be here around Christmas!” he said. I knew what he meant, as I had read of one family who’d queued for three hours to see Santa before having to give up or miss their flight. They sued their tour operator for compensation and won. Santa and I agreed that just like Christmas shopping, it was better to avoid the last minute rush. He promised to deliver personal greetings to a few young friends of mine and when I left he was talking to the children in Spanish.
Back in Rovaniemi, a Japanese business man was waiting at the quayside for the trip to the reindeer farm.
He was attending a conference in the area, had an afternoon at leisure, and signed up for the same riverboat excursion that I was going on. Our guide joined us and the businessman and I were fitted out in padded boiler suits and life preservers. We settled gingerly into a ‘traditional riverboat’, which is like a long, fat canoe with an outboard motor. Following a loggers’ river channel, we sped up, or maybe down, the Kemijoki river, the Finnish flag flapping at our bow. In some places the shore was rocky, with forests of evergreens undulating into the distance. In other places, the river simply seeped into bogland. There were orange wildflowers- snowberries- like tiny pumpkins in the grasses and from time to time a clatter of water birds.
Just as I was trying to remember when I’d last eaten, the guide steered the boat into a cove nicked out of an island and announced lunch. We took off our lifejackets and followed him into a weathered, red cabin with two big square rooms, the soft pine floors deeply dented from the spikes of loggers’ boots. The first space was a kitchen and store room where the guide began heating up a ‘summer stew’, a kind of Lappish stir-fry of vegetables and salmon. The second room was a deserted dining hall where my co-tourist and I set places for ourselves at one end of a long wooden table . We put out heavy brown bread, some butter and a bowl of jam. This lured a few wasps through the chinks in the log walls, but the fearsome Lapland mosquito never made an appearance. The guide served up the stew and followed that with cinnamon buns and coffee which he’d boiled up in a battered blue enamel pot.
Motoring on after lunch, we crossed the arctic circle again, though this time as it fell across the river we had to take the guide’s word for it. In another half-hour we reached a small landing platform where elevated planks led off through marshy grasses to higher ground. A Lapp reindeer farmer in his colourful, embroidered costume was waiting there to welcome us to a ‘crossing the arctic circle’ ceremony. He invited us into his kota, a dark and smoky tepee made of reindeer skins. We sat on benches padded with furry reindeer pelts, sipping hot berry juice from small cups, while he knelt before a small fire, heating a knife blade in the flames. With this, he pretended to make a ritual slash at the base of our skulls. We pretended to think he had. He stamped our foreheads firmly with soot to indicate where antlers would grow in our next life and the ceremony was over.
Out in the sunshine, the farmer fed what looked like horse nuts to a few reindeer who wandered up from the bog, obviously wise to the ways of the crossing the arctic circle ceremony. Reindeer look like furry coffee tables with moose heads attached. Both male and female reindeer have antlers and, we were told, shed them each year. In the wild, the herd will prevent a reindeer with misshapen antlers from browsing thus causing it to starve to death. This decidedly un-Christmassy concept silenced me but the Japanese man asked our host how many reindeer in his herd. In answer, the farmer gave a vague wave of his hand. I’ve since read that in Lapland this question is as rude as asking for someone’s bank balance.
An hour or so later we were back in Rovaniemi peeling off our boiler suits and writing cheerful messages in the visitor’s book. ‘Pure nature’, wrote the Japanese man. On our way to the airport we dropped my fellow traveller at the Artikum, a linear Crystal Palace which points to the river like a glass finger. It houses the combined Arctic Centre and Regional Museum of Lapland and if I’d known about it I’d have booked a later return and visited it, too. As it was, like so many other Santa day trippers, I had to hurry to catch my flight. I was still wearing the soot marks where my antlers will sprout , but I didn’t realise it until much later that evening.
‘Magical Lapland’ tour from Lapland Safaris,Koskikatu 1,FINN 92600 Rovaniemi, Finland. email:firstname.lastname@example.org; web:www.laplandsafaris.com.