Searching for Santa Claus?
Cross the Arctic Circle to Rovaniemi, Finland
Cynthia Elyce Rubin
The Norwegian American
Finland is a land renowned for industrial design based on form and function, where one can mix and match every chair and every cup and saucer stacks neatly within the other.
It is also a land of contrasts. From endless daylight in the summer to the still, wintry darkness of the polar night, Finland is famous for innovations like Nokia and saunas (Finns enjoy sitting in a heated box and upon reaching a boiling point, running outside and rolling in the snow). And, as it turns out, Finland is famous for Santa Claus. It is in Finnish Lapland that you will find his home. Santa spends his time here every day of the year to take care of his mission in life: to enhance the well-being of children and the kindness of adults and spread the message of love and good will and the Christmas Spirit across the globe.
Modernism in the wilderness
Lapland might seem an odd place for such a wonderful thing, though. Rovaniemi, the region’s capital, was almost completely destroyed by the Germans at the end of World War II. What you see today has been totally redesigned by Alvar Aalto (1898-1976), world-famous Finnish designer and modernist architect. Based on his functionalist architecture, houses lost individuality, and unnecessary ornament was eliminated. Each and every detail, simple and streamlined, exemplifies 20th-century efficiency.
However, passing over the Kemijoki River on the Jätkänkynttilä Bridge, with its eternal flames, the town’s futuristic appearance rapidly gives way to Europe’s last unspoiled wilderness. White stuff is on the ground for approximately six months of the year. The quality of snow varies with the weather, and in Rovaniemi you find everything from the fresh and soft powder of midwinter to wet, spring snow. I remember that strange crunch, the unusual sound of the snow as I walked on it when I visited Rovaniemi years ago during the month of January. As was explained to me, there are dozens of different types of snow, and there’s a word for each one in the Finnish language.
The wilds of Lapland extend almost into the city’s center. High fells, or hills, pristine lakes, and gushing rivers and rapids thread their way through the region, home to wild animals and native reindeer. In the forests, hares, elk, and foxes roam in abundance.
A walk in the fairytale-like white crystal forest, surrounded by snowy trees, is like stepping into another world. It takes just a few minutes to find yourself in this heart of nature, home to 6,000 Sámi. As the original inhabitants of Finland, the Sámi are thought to have first arrived in the region during the great Asian migrations thousands of years ago. Today, their homeland, a vast territory reaching from central Norway and Sweden through the northernmost part of Finland and into Russia, includes distinct cultural groups with a unique common history, language, and way of life.
Sámi society is based foremost on a deep respect for nature. They have adapted their way of life to the harsh conditions of the natural world by maintaining an intimate relationship with the environment. And in daily life, the reindeer is the most important item of value. Just as the buffalo served every fundamental need for the Native American of the Great Plains, so too are reindeer skins, horns, and meat the fundamental ingredients of the Sámi way of life.
Living a fantasy
Reindeer are a common symbol, of not only the Sámi but also Santa Claus. In American culture, Santa and Rudolph are an inseparable team, keeping one another company, as they travel over rugged hills and through freshly fallen snow. I once had the fantasy of being pulled in a sleigh by a reindeer. On my trip to Rovaniemi that fantasy was realized, although at the time, I felt the reindeer would have been happier with a 3-year-old in his sleigh than a fully grown adult.
Today, getting to know reindeer is much easier than it was during my visit, as there are many more reindeer sleigh rides and farm visits for tourists. However, flying reindeer are still only reserved for Santa, since they require expert driving skills that take centuries to master.
At home with Santa
Santa’s original home lies in the mysterious Korvatunturi (Ear Hill). Since the exact location is a secret known only to a chosen few, he decided to establish an office in Rovaniemi in 1985, and this city received the status of Official Hometown of Santa Claus in 2010. Here, Santa lives, works, and plays. Notably, in 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, visited Rovaniemi to witness the town’s rebuilding process. She wanted to visit the Arctic Circle, and Rovaniemi officials rushed to construct a cabin north of the city. This cabin marked the birth of Santa Claus Village and still stands today next to Santa Claus Main Post Office.
Billed as the “official home of Santa,” Santa Claus Village, together with another attraction, Santa Park Arctic World, highlight the pursuit of the Christmas holiday season. The hidden underground workshop where Santa’s elves build toys for children around the world is in Santa Park, just minutes away from Santa Claus Village and the city of Rovaniemi. And there is always something new. A recent tourist addition in Santa Claus Village is the home of Mrs. Claus. The smells of gingerbread waft through the rooms of this beautiful wooden house located on the land of Santa Claus’ reindeer. Mrs. Claus will welcome you with her special ginger cookies.
Since 1985, Santa Claus has received 5 million letters from 198 countries, which makes Santa Claus Main Post Office a must on any visit to Santa Claus Village. The merry postal elves serve customers all year round in their headquarters, a real post office operated by Posti, Finland’s national postal service.
Every letter sent from here receives a special Arctic Circle postmark not available anywhere else. Where does Santa find the energy and time to answer all the letters, to deliver all those presents to children around the world and to greet people at his office every day of the year? It is said that the midnight sun during the three long summer months in Lapland ensure that Santa and his elves are all prepared for the long winters.
Open every day of the year in Rovaniemi, children and adults can visit Santa’s office, enjoy a private chat with him and revel in an enchanted atmosphere. As we all know, Santa’s annual goal is to deliver happiness around the world with the help of his team of reindeer. He may only visit your home on one night in December, but he welcomes you to visit him during the rest of the year. “I’m an ambassador of good will, love and peace, and wish nothing but happiness to the people of the world,” he says without a hint of hesitation in his voice. Don’t pass up the invitation!
This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.