Nancy Heslin has never really warmed to the holiday season and in a bid to leave snow and frostbiting temperatures in her past, she left Canada nearly ten years ago. But after a recent visit to Rovaniemi, Finland, official home to Santa Claus and on the border of the Article Circle, she returned with stars in her eyes. Cressida van Zyl Pithey sits down with her to discuss Santa, snow and safaris.
What’s the history of this city located 800 km north of Helsinki? “Since the 1100s, Rovaniemi, Lapland’s capital lying just north on the border of the Arctic Circle with a latitude 66°33’07’ minutes North, has sheltered lumberjacks and traders and been a strategic stepping stone between Northern Europe and Russia. Its more recent history is complex, a result of shifting support from the Germans to the Russians. A visit to the provincial museum Arktikum cleverly contrasts a thriving Rovaniemi in 1939 to a razed town in 1944 when all but two villages were destroyed.
Post-war construction led by Alvar Aalto who, respecting the transportation routes of locals, sketched out a reindeer antler shape for a new Rovaniemi. Today, 58,000 citizens – and 14,000 reindeer – make up Europe’s 12th largest city, though most of its 8016 km2 is forested area.”
The man in the red suit
But this is not why Rovaniemi attracts more than half a million tourists a year. “No, of course not. Its claim to fame is the home to the real Santa Claus. For nearly 100 years, Finnish children believed that Santa lived in rugged Korvatunturi, a fell in Lapland near the Russian border. The fell is shaped like rabbit ears and so, according to legend, children thought that Santa could hear their wishes from there. It turns out that this is only where Santa’s top secret toy workshop is situated and Santa himself resides a few kilometers outside Rovaniemi. Since 1985, he’s been greeting visitors each day of the year in his ‘office’ – a welcoming room with a fireplace, sacks of gifts, bookshelves and a photo-taking elf – dominated by a 10 metre cogwheel, known as the earth’s rotation device. In addition to the thousands of children who wait impatiently for their turn to sit on Santa’s knee, international celebrities and public figures also stand in line to fulfil a lifelong dream. It is here in this room where the untainted faith of our youth, when anything was possible, resurfaces; as though the confession of an innermost wish to a gigantic man in a red suit puts you in good graces with higher powers. It is, quite simply, magic.”
And what does the village consist of? “Next door to Santa’s house, amongst shops and cafeterias and the multi-language Christmas carols, you’ll find Santa’s Post Office where Santa has received 12.5 million letters from 197 countries – 700,000 last Christmas alone – with stories about day-to-day life with drawings, photos and even cookies for Santa. Quite a few send baby sohers for Santa’s baby reindeer, while others hope for world peace, and of course, lots of letters include Christmas wish lists. One elf told me the story of a boy from England who sent Santa an Excel spreadsheet listing the names of 40 toys, catalogue and page numbers, and cost, which totalled … $50,000!
During the spring, when Saint Nick has rested after his round the world voyage, he sits down and answers each of these letters – if a proper return address has been included. If you’re looking for that official address, write to Santa Claus Main Post Office, Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi 96930 Finland.”
Visit all year round
Is there life outside Santa Claus Village? “It’s true, Rovaniemi dominates the Christmas tourism sector and visitors from across the world equal ten times its population but the town itself boasts Lordi Square, named after the homegrown heavy metal band who won the 2006 Eurovision song contest – who could forget them – and of course, a trip to the Arctic Circle just wouldn’t be complete without a reindeer sleigh ride. Get kitted up with Eräsetti Tours and head out into the wild – you really have to do this. I even heard one passenger say it’s the best cure for hangover! At the end of the ride, you’ll receive an official reindeer driver’s permit. Husky and snowmobile safaris are also hugely popular.
“Rovaniemi’s slogan is the ‘City of Eight Seasons’, so you can visit late winter when snow is up to 70 cm for the Ounasvaara Winter Games – and try winter golf on the frozen Kemijoki river – or in June and July when the midnight sun dominates and temperatures soar to +30°. The Aurora Borealis – the Northern lights, when solar particles collide with the earth’s atmosphere creating red and green shimmering spirits in the sky – can be seen some 200 nights a year from this part of the world. And if you’re looking for a wedding theme that’s completely different, remember Santa can officiate a matrimonial ceremony any month of the year.”
HOW TO GET THERE: Finnair (www.finnair.com) makes travel trouble-free with its consistently outstanding customer service, from pre-booking to in-flight. Nancy flew via Paris to Helsinki, with a final 1-hour connecting flight to Rovaniemi.
Celebrating 85 years in 2008, the airline published Finnair: Fast-forward 85 years (to be reviewed issue 134) which uncovers its passion for flying. To coincide with the ideas and illustrations in the book, Finnair also launched www.departure2093.com – a forum where the public can weigh in with their thoughts on travel in the future.
WHERE TO STAY: The unpretentious, family-run City Hotel (www.cityhotel.fi) offers decent accommodation in a completely child-friendly environment. Breakfast, included in rate, is the best in town, and the recently renovated restaurant is superb.