If Christmas leaves you wistful for a winter wonderland, perhaps it’s time to put a visit to the official hometown of Santa Claus in Finnish Lapland on your wish list.
Words Gaynor Stanley
Contrary to popular belief, Santa does not reside at the North Pole. His original home is a closely guarded secret in the far northern fells of Finland, but, in 1985, he set up headquarters to welcome visitors every day of the year at Santa Claus Village, located right on the Arctic Circle just a few kilometres north of the small city of Rovaniemi. The big man in red receives half a million visitors annually, from all corners of the globe and, as you’d expect, the numbers snowball as the chocolates disappear from the advent calendars.
Festive fever starts to peak from a month before Christmas when locals and tourists gather in the central square of Santa Claus Village for the annual Grand Opening of the Christmas Season. The traditional ceremony reminds us of the Christmas message of goodwill, sharing and caring, and the elves and local artists put on a festive concert that culminates in Santa Claus’s speech.
One of the most hectic days on the festive calendar is December 23, which marks the culmination of the year’s preparations with the Santa is on his Way event drawing huge crowds of well-wishers to cheer on the sleigh’s departure and a global television audience.
What to expect
At Christmas time, daylight hours are few, while snowfall is vast, which makes for a concentrated daily dose of magical activities. Imagine dashing through the snow on sleighs pulled by huskies or reindeer through trees cloaked in white. Or a family snowmobile safari in the blue twilight of the Polar Night to the barren fells high above the treeline, the kids astride their own pint-sized snowmobiles. You might also learn to drive a reindeer – at ground level (flying skills take centuries to master). And those are just the warm-up acts.
The main attraction for anyone besotted with Christmas is spellbinding encounters with Santa and his elves. You’ll be served by elves at the Santa Claus Main Post Office, operated by Finland’s national postal service to handle the avalanche of Dear Santa letters that arrives each year (15 million from 198 countries since 1985). Tip: Make sure to mail your Christmas cards here to brand them with a unique ‘look-at-me’ Arctic Circle postmark. You can help the elves make traditional Christmas gingerbread or groom Santa’s reindeers ready for their annual flight around the globe. The kids can even be enrolled at Elf School to learn the most essential lessons of being an elf. No doubt the kids will forever cherish the memory of descending the long underground tunnel into Santas’s home cavern for a private audience in his office.
Steady the schmaltz
Now, if all this jolliness is provoking a touch of the ‘Bah! Humbug!’, balance your itinerary experiencing some of these other sensational Rovaniemi experiences.
1. The spectacular Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, are visible in and around Rovaniemi from mid-August until early April. A Christmas visit has the bonus of the soft blue twilight known as the Polar Night, which lasts from mid-November to mid-January. Sun and longer days return in February. Go Aurora spotting the traditional way by donning some snowshoes or cross-country skis.
2. Stay in an extraordinary hotel. The Arctic Snowhotel in Rovaniemi is made entirely of snow and ice while glass igloos promise romantic Northern Lights viewing at Snowman World Glass Resort or Santa’s Igloos. Check-in for designer style in the treetops at Arctic Treehouse Hotel or the luxury hotel voted Finland’s best at Rovaniemi’s Arctic Light Hotel.
3. Cultural attractions abound in the creative city of Rovaniemi. Visit the Korundi House of Culture housing the Chamber Orchestra of Lapland and Rovaniemi Art Museum, containing one of Finland’s finest collections of modern art. The Arktikum Museum attracts as much for its arctic nature exhibits as the striking 172-metre-long glass tunnel that leads to it from Ounasjoki River. Between December and April, its windows offer a spectacular view of long-distance skaters and skiers gliding across the frozen river.
4. Architectural gems. Pilke Science Center is an example of ecological wooden construction at its best and a showpiece of Finnish architecture. World-renowned Finnish architect Alvar Aalto had a major influence on Rovaniemi designing several buildings (the library still stands) along with the distinctive town plan, known as the Reindeer Antler, in 1945.
5. Finland is synonymous with sauna and there will be ample opportunities to indulge, but at the Arctic Snowhotel even the sauna is made from snow and ice. Only the sauna benches are made from wood. The thick steam of the stove keeps the temperature high, even though the snowy walls radiate cold.
If taking the children to Finland is pushing your sled too hard, they can always send a letter to Santa: Santa Claus’ Main Post Office, Santa Claus Village Rovaniemi, Tähtikuja 1, 96930 Arctic Circle, Finland.
The typical daytime temperature in December is -20 to -10 degrees Celsius.
Rovaniemi, population 60,000, was almost completely destroyed in World War II. In 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, came to witness the rebuilding process and wanted to visit the Arctic Circle. Officials built a cabin eight kilometres north of the city, which still stands today next to the Santa Claus Main Post Office.
There are more reindeer in Lapland than sheep. While they all have an owner, they roam free and every visitor is bound to have multiple encounters – even on the dinner menu.
In Finland, Christmas Eve is the main event of the holidays, and the night Santa comes with his presents. It is spent with the family, decorating the tree, drinking “glögi” (mulled wine) and doing the quintessential Finnish thing, bathing in a Christmas sauna. A visit to Christmas Mass at midnight is customary for many.