December 2001: The Lapland riddle

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santa-forestYou Trek a thousand miles to the Arctic circle to see Santa and what do you see: a giant, frozen, shopping centre. It seems we have been replicating Santa’s national habitat correctly for all these years.

Traditionally, the Finns believe that Santa’s home is in Korvatunturi Fjeld in Savukoski. The deep snow, frozen lakes, thick pine forests and more than 200,000 reindeer certainly evoke the right atmosphere. But seeing as Christmas and commerce rhyme these days, it was the Lapland town of Rovaniemi and its nearby Santapark which saw off potential threats from Norway and Sweden seven years ago and had its claim as Santa’s true home certified by a Nordic commission.

Since then, the temptation to bring the children of a certain age to the Arctic Circle to see Santa has been too great for thousands of people to resist, the largest numbers of them from England, Japan and, oddly, Poland.

Maybe this is as far into the winter daylight as Santa will venture. SantaPark, eight kilometres from the town of Rovaniemi is, in fact, just a toehold into the Arctic circle. Some trips even offer a circle-crossing ceremony.

In the kaamos (the Dark Time) Rovaniemi gets just 135 minutes of sunlight, barely more than two hours, and that if the solstice sky isn’t clouded over. At Christmas there are a few hours of twilight at mid-day.

 

There are five airports in the region and direct flights from the Ireland take about three and a half hours. Some trips offer an optional visit to see the huskies (u55 adult, u50 child). Local resorts favoured for two, three and four day trips include Ylläs (The Santastic Secret Forest), Luosto, Levi, Saariselkä, Sinetta and Isö-Syote .

Temperatures drop well below freezing. Some operators provide thermal outerwear such as all-in-one suits, boots, gloves and hats but visitors will still need to take plenty of warm layers. Because of the extreme cold, it’s not a place to take very young children or babies.

Flights, accommodation, food and entertainments are usually included in the price. Optional extras may include ski hire (about u25 per day), snowmobile transfers (up to u150) and single-room supplements. Operators may offer excursions on longer trips.

On most of the tours, children (and sometimes adults) receive a gift from Santa. Present policy varies between companies. Most are valued between u15 and u25 and are appropriate to the age and sex of the child. There is a toy-smuggling option in some packages where parents can give one modest, pre-wrapped present for Santa to give their children along with his own gift.

On the cheaper tours where you meet Santa in a theme park, you may have to queue and have limited time with him. On specialised tours, companies arrange for families to have a longer, more private meeting with no set time limit and no queuing. Some trips include family sleigh rides to meet Santa in a romantic log cabin.

 

Other packages offer ice fishing, skidoo rides, tandem skiing, reindeer lassoing and  visits to a reindeer farm. Some longer trips have children’s clubs: a Snowkids Club supervised by qualified staff who organise baking, colouring-in, games and videos and an Elf Club, supervised by its reps, where parents can leave children while they have a swim or sauna. Most include hot drinks in a Lappish kota, a traditional fire-lit wooden dwelling,

Once described by Finnish writer Pirkko Saisio as a “small, round town in the middle of the woodlands” today’s Rovaniemi is a modern creation. There was a permanent Karelian trading centre on this site as early as 900 AD, although the first written reference to Rovaniemi dates back to 1453. It was almost totally destroyed during the war in 1944 but a new administrative capital of Finnish Lapland was constructed to an innovative town plan by architect Alvar Aalto. His Artikum museum in itself is worth a visit.

Yet there is always a sense that the real Lapland is a short but elusive distance away. It is too far south to see the aurora borealis properly. Physicists say that when you do see them they look gorgeous, and are very active.

Could it be that Santa like the peace and quiet of the forests of the far north, and leaves all this commercialism to a slightly slimmer cousin from Rovaniemi?

 

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