Around the World: Searching for Santa Claus
At this time of year you can encounter Santa Claus in many shopping malls and department stores and, in some cities, on practically every well-trafficked street corner. Yes, they wear Santa suits and shout out Ho, ho, ho. But, no, they’re just seasonal Santas, put in place to collect money for charities or to encourage youngsters to express their ideal Christmas wish list. These Santas are put in place to prompt sales.
If you’re yearning for a more authentic experience with Santa, you’d best set out to visit him at home. Or at least at the place that claims to be the real residence of Father Christmas.
That would be in Roveniemi, a charming and ancient town located above the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. To be more specific, Roveniemi is about 500 miles northeast of the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The town is situated in the heart of Finnish Lapland, the region occupied by the indigenous Sami people.
The Sami people have been reindeer herders for centuries, and that tradition continues in the present, although most Sami now earn their livings by holding down some sort of regular. And, although Father Christmas is not a native son of the Sami’s traditional shamanistic belief system, he and his host of helpers and reindeer do fit quite comfortably into their contemporary cultural environment.
Because Roveniemi is the quasi-offical residence of Santa Claus, and the site of a huge atelier where gift-y goods are produced and a shop where they are sold, Christmas is pretty much a year-round event in the town.
But the best time to visit is during the winter, and especially on the days leading up to December 25, the annual date for the celebration of Christmas and Christmas gift-giving or December 26, when people in British Commonweath nations celebrate Boxing Day.
In winter, Roveniemi is a snow-clad wonderland. It’s exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find Santa Claus.
The town is so far north that there is little sunshine, so it’s night-like even at high noon. But the snow, which remains a glistening white, really lights up the town. And citizens are adept at compensating for the seasonal gloom by silhouetting most of the buildings in town with bright lights, many of them twinkling or in color. Living pine trees around down are also decorated with lights. And candles flicker in many windows and on table tops in restaurants.
And, of course, there are the magnificent Northern lights glimmering in the night sky. The effect is magical and cheerfully celebratory. Christmas spirit is in the air.
Whether you get to Roveniemi by train or plane, the town’s Santa connection is immediately evident – especially in winter, when you can actually arrange for a reindeer-drawn sledge to transport you into town.
On the reindeer theme, there are also reindeer safaris that take you deep into the surrounding pine forest wilderness. The safaris are thrilling. You’re bundled in the sledge, covered up with reindeer hides that keep you super warm. The sledge glides through the snow, following ancient paths that the Sami have used for centuries to traverse pristine forests. The sledge is drawn by a team of reindeer that are commanded by a driver who stands behind you, reining the reindeer and making sure that the sledge is stable and headed in the right direction. Depending on the time of day and duration of the journey, you might stop at a wilderness lodge for refreshment, or just sip a warming drink from the comfort of the sledge. You see wildlife. The drivers don’t dress as Santa, but they are naturalists who can interpret the flora and fauna for you, and give you a good history of the land, local culture and traditions.
Of course, you’re not likely to meet Santa in the woods. He’s too busy making appearances at designated Santa-spotting spots.
For a first encounter with Santa, you’d best head for Santa Park, a huge underground cavern that features Santa’s workshop, a post office, a fairyland train, gingerbread bakery, an icy fairyland ruled by the Ice Princess, and elves galore. Santa is always there, too, to meet with children of all ages and listen to their Christmas wishes. Santa
Park is the heart of Roveniemi’s claim to Santa fame.
Of course, Santa Park is a very successful commercial venture themed around the lore of Father Christmas, but it’s an especially entertaining tourist attraction that has been put together with great charm and imagination. It’s open all year, and the temperature inside the cavern is winter-like even during summer months. The price of admission is
about $40 for adults, $30 for children aged 3 to 12. Family admission package deals are also available.
You can also find Santa in Santa’s Village, on the outskirts of town. The village has a lot of gift shops well stocked with toys of all sorts and souvenir items. Santa has his own little chalet in the village, and is always there to receive guests. This place has perfect picture ops. And, it’s also the location of the official Santa post office, from which you can mail all sorts of toys to children back home – or to yourselves, if you’ve bought too much to carry home in your bags. You can get to Santa’s Village by public bus, and admission is free.
When you’re satisfied that you’ve fully explored Roveniemi’s Santa connections, turn your attention to some of the town’s other attractions. You can see reindeer, bears and some 50 other species of arctic wildlife at Rauna Wildlife Park, which is open year round. The park has its own safari service to guide you around so you can see everything it offers. Admission is about $20 for adults, $16 for children.
When you’re ready to stay indoors for a while, head for Artikum, a beautiful modern museum where you’ll find fascinating exhibits about the history of Roveniemi and environs from ancient times to the 1970s, including really good introductory material about Sami culture and traditions. Displays also delve into scientific research being done in the Arctic. And there are frequent lectures presented on Arctic topics of interest.
In case you’re concerned about amenities, Roveniemi offers world-class accommodations and has some great restaurants, some of them serving up traditional Sami fare in feasts that would explain Santa’s girth more than the vast numbers of cookies left with milk near chimneys in homes around the world. You can get to Roveniemi from Helsinki by Finnair, but the best way to travel is by train. Buying a Eurailpass will cut travel costs considerably, and there are comfortable and convenient trains with overnight sleeper service. Info about trains is at www.eurail.com.
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For more information about Roveniemi, check the town’s official site at http://www.visitrovaniemi.fi or the site of the Finnish Tourist at http://www.visitfinland.com