The business of Santa is alive and well in Lapland, which seems to have cornered the market on all things St. Nick, at least for Europeans. On my recent trip to Finland, I found that Rovaniemi’s campaign, more than 50 years in the making, to serve as Santa’s hometown has paid off handsomely for the regional capital – and this year’s peak season has only just begun.
Located on the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi has done its best to stay relevant, a difficult feat given its history. Germans destroyed 90 percent of the town during World War II, and the city now survives economically because of tourism. While Lapland attracts visitors in the summer for its outdoor pursuits (think hiking, fishing and rafting), the sub-zero temperatures and limited daylight dissuade winter travelers who aren’t ardent skiers (although I would return to chase down the Northern Lights). It’s also the heart of Sami culture.
Enter Santa. Lapland was first touted as a home for the bearded one in 1927, when radio personality Markus Rautio said on his popular Finnish program, The Children’s Hour, that Santa lived on “Ear Mountain” outside Rovaniemi. The myth was given a boost in the 1980s, with the BBC’s Search for Santa program that claimed Father Christmas had a Finnish base. Santa Holidays to Finland emerged as a more recent phenomenon, mostly among other Europeans.
On our trip, we skipped Santapark, an underground amusement park that seemed too cheesy for our group of skeptical journalists. Instead, we opted for a stop at Joulukka, a more private Santa experience offered by the same owners. Hidden away in the woods outside Rovaniemi, Joulukka attracts families who wouldn’t be caught dead with just any mall Santa.
Joulukka’s full-fledged Santa experience costs 980 Euro for a family of six. For that, the families are driven around the 35 hectare property on a sleigh pulled by a reindeer and visit the Christmas Command Center, culminating in a visit with Santa himself. You also eat a meal served by elves.
We toured the Command Center ourselves, led by an “elf” who refused to break character (although we tried our best). Of course, we also met the big man himself, who graciously sat down for a press conference. Asking Santa if he used drugs to stay awake during his Christmas flight? Priceless. (He claimed the cookies kept him going).
Next on our Christmas agenda: A visit to the Konttaniemi Reindeer Farm, where we fed the animals by hand and learned about reindeer herding, a tradition in this part of Finland for centuries.
I loved the soft felt on the reindeer antlers and how friendly they were . They seem like gentle creatures, a cross between a deer and a cow. And then we entered a faux Sami tepee where we enjoyed a Lappish meal of…..ground reindeer, of course! Served with potatoes and lingonberries, it ended up being one of the best meals we had in Finland (aside from the guilt I suffered from eating Rudolph).
Our last Rovaniemi stop was Santa Claus Village, a shopping center where the main Santa post office is housed. Before we went in, we took photos of the Arctic Circle, which runs right through the mall. There’s also an iittala outlet, for adults who want ideas for their own Xmas list.
The Post Office proved to be gimmicky, but fun. You could send cards and letters with the Polar Circle postmark, either for immediate distribution or right at Christmas. I amused myself by writing some threatening postcards from Santa to my parents – Be good or else! (hey, they perpetuated the Santa myth on me for years – nothing wrong with a little payback).
While we were there, post office workers were diligently writing letters back to hopeful kids. The post office receives more than 620,000 letters a year – and nearly 32,000 a day during at Christmas time.
The letters come from 198 countries, with kids from the UK, Italy, Romania and Poland sending the most.
After our visit to the post office, I was Christmas-ed out. Thankfully, the Hotel Santa Claus in Rovaniemi proved to be less holiday-centric than its name suggested. Each room came with its own sauna (testimony to the Finnish love for steam) and the decor appeared pure boutique hotel, not kitsch. It was one of the best hotels we had seen during our Finnish trip, and I wish we would have had time to eat in its Lappish restaurant.
All in all, Santa has done well by Lapland. If I had kids and lived in a northern European country, I can see treating them to a special experience with the Bearded One. There’s only so many years that the young ones believe.
Thanks to The Eurail Group, which sponsored my trip to Finland.