No book on Finland would be complete without mentioning Santa Claus because Finland is the home of Father Christmas.
The Finnish version of Father Christmas is rather different from the modern day equivalent that we have in the UK and the USA. We tend to depict him as a kind, rounded, jovial, old man (this image was originally designed by a Finn for the Coca-Cola company!) However, in Finland he is depicted as a mischievous elf and is rather peculiar looking. He’s certainly dressed in red, but it’s more like a Lappish costume than the red and white outfit that we see on Western Christmas cards and in Hollywood movies.
Santa Claus lives in Lapland. I know because I»ve been to his house. Santa’s village is located just outside Rovaniemi, and it is built right on the beginnings of the Arctic Circle. In fact, strung across the village is an electric cable filled with red lights marking the boundary of the Arctic Circle. You can, therefore, straddle the Arctic Circle with one foot in and one foot out, just as you can straddle the timeline in England, at Greenwich.
A visit to Santa Claus’s village is a must. Whilst at the village, you can go on a reindeer safari and snowmobiling.
Santa’s village is commercialized in a Finnish sense, which means it is modestly promoted and modestly commercialized in our terms. For those of us who are used to theme parks in America or in well-populated parts of Europe, you will find visiting Santa’s village a very gentle and pleasant experience. The gifts in the shops are often handmade goods crafted by the Laps themselves. Their craftwork is quite unique. The designs are colorful and intricate and really something that you will not buy anywhere else on this earth. Whilst in the village, do remember to go to Santa’s post office and send all your young relatives and friends an official card from Santa’s village. Rovaniemi is the town in Lapland to which Concorde used to fly on its one-day trips to visit Santa. And what a glorious site it was—looking like a huge silver bird hovering a pale-blue wintry sky!
There is some discrepancy as to where Santa Claus actually lives. He has a rival who says he is the real Santa Claus and lives in a town called Korvatunturi, also in Finnish Lapland. Here, too, you will meet Father Christmas, his wife and all of Santa’s helpers. And you should remember to use the post office here as well.
It is probably worthwhile mentioning, while we are on the subject of Santa Claus, that during the months of November and December, while you are flying on Finnair flights, you will get the opportunity to be able to commission Santa Claus to send letters from Santa’s village. A couple of years ago, I sent all my step-grandchildren some letters and they were highly delighted because they did come from abroad and they truly did seem to come from Santa Claus himself.
Now, Santa Claus is quite remarkable. He has an incredible knowledge of foreign languages. Whilst we were queuing up to see Santa Claus, I personally heard him speaking Japanese to some young Japanese visitors, he also spoke French and, of course, English to my own daughter. We had the official Santa photograph taken whilst we were there. Digitally mastered and prepared within seconds, it is, of course, one of those treasures to keep!
In Finland, you can hire an «official» Santa Claus or official ‘santa Claus Helper» to come and visit the children on Christmas Eve. These men are called Tonttu. They are officially registered and licensed to act as Father Christmas, and there is a set fee for their services. I was surprised to learn that Father Christmas» services are not only required at Christmas time.
My friend, Tonttu Hannu Rosberg, is an official Santa Claus helper. Many families employ the services of Tonttus around Christmas-time to visit their homes and deliver presents to their children.
A Modern-Day Santa Claus Helper I remember quite well one day early in February. I was flying out from Helsinki airport, northbound when I saw a gentleman turn up to check in for the plane. He was dressed in a most peculiar outfit. Later on, both he and I shared the same airport taxi. Although his English was not too good, I gathered that he was an official Tonttu. The photograph in this chapter is one that he gave me when I told him I was writing a book and would dearly love to mention him in it. His name is Hannu and he even has his own website! These Tonttu are not as quaint and old-fashioned as you might believe. Perception is the name of the game. His costume was definitely old-fashioned and traditional. The shoes he had on were handmade from reindeer skin and he carried a sort of wooden box tied with string to keep his belongings in. I was quite surprised when I was in the taxi to see the string untied, the box opened and a mobile phone appear. My illusions were shattered. I laughed and it made a very good starting point for beginning our conversation. We both laughed in the end; he because he couldn’t believe that I thought he didn’t live in an electronic age and me at my own naivety.
Outside Rovaniemi, there is Santa Park. This is the underground theme world of Santa Claus. When we visited, it had only just been opened a few months. Do not go with the impression that you might be visiting another Disney World. It certainly is not like that. In fact, my impression was that it was aimed really at young children. At the time, there was not very much to amuse older children or adults. However, it is certainly a very interesting place to visit and it gives you an idea of how the Finns think of Father Christmas. For me, it lacked a certain magic or sparkle. In hindsight, that was probably because I had too great an expectation (a cultural one) and was a little disappointed for my daughter, aged 11. However, we were all decidedly glad we had made the effort to go. I suppose I am used to some sort of «Hollywood gloss». The Finns, as I mentioned before, regard Father Christmas as being a mischievous elf and, indeed, Santa Park was very much built on that perception.
The main entrance to Santa Claus’s village is also where you can catch the snow-train to Santa Park. When in the village, don’t forget to send some letters to your friends and family and have them arrive franked with Santa’s official postmark.
Both my husband and I had to smile about the organization, therein. They are obviously not expecting to be overwhelmed by thousands of visitors at any one time. Indeed, getting on and off the bus at Santa Park was at the same bus stop. The food hall had no clear indication of a queuing system. Retrieving hats and coats at the end of your visit is quite a free-for-all. For a number of people attending when we visited, the whole thing worked well and was civilized. With larger numbers and more foreign visitors, it could have been chaos. I really think this reflects the calm, quiet, non-pushy nature of the Finns. They are obviously assuming their visitors will all behave as they do—stick to the rules!
The gift shops in Santa Claus’s village were filled with many traditional Lappish goods and handicrafts. There were many unusual gift items. One of my favorite buys is the Lappish doll in traditional costume, which can be bought in varying sizes. Look out for Mother and Father Christmas dolls, as their costumes are a delight, though their faces are very mischievous.
If you would like to write to him, the address is Joulupukki, 96930 Napapiiri, Finland; or go to his website at www.santaclaus.posti.fi.