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Why is Santa from Lapland? Discovering Santa's Finnish home

Why is Santa from Lapland? Discovering Santa's Finnish home

Why is Lapland associated with Santa? A brilliant tourism ploy in the 1960s has made Santa Claus a central figure in Finnish culture

Christmas elves, light-footed and gay, flit about a pine forest in northern Finland, assisting Santa Claus at his command centre and toy factory. The scent of freshly shaved spruce rises from the woodworking stations and a whirring machine stuffs fluff into velvety pink unicorns.

I’m in the Santa Claus Secret ForestJoulukka, in Finnish—a place that does not appear on any map, and where visitors are welcome only with prior arrangement.

It’s a night so dark and fuzzy that I feel like I am inside a mitten. The only things guiding my way are candles in the snow and the high-pitched voices of elves cutting through the cold.

“How long have you been an elf?” I ask one of them.

“One hundred twenty-seven years, going on 128.”

“Are you ever scared out here?”

“No. We have lots of animal friends that help us.”

“Where is the restroom?”

“I will show you to the magic hole where travellers go to help their tummies feel better.”

The visit was part of a two-week journey across Finland in November 2021. I was on a mission to find the man who seemed to be everywhere and nowhere at once: Santa Claus.

The origins of Santa in Finland

Timber house in Rovaniemi, LaplandThe governor of Lapland declared Rovaniemi to be Santa Claus's official home in 1984

In 1927, Finnish radio host Markus Rautio announced that Santa Claus’s home had been “located” on Korvatunturi, a mountain in Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region.

From there, Rautio suggested, Santa could hear even the quietest whispers carried by the north wind.

Niilo Tarvajärvi, another renowned radio and television personality, raised the idea of capitalizing on the Santa Claus mythology in the 1960s after visiting Disneyland in the United States, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that efforts gained any real momentum.

That’s when the Finnish Tourist Board launched a new tourism strategy for Lapland, which despite its many assets—one of Europe’s few remaining untouched wilderness areas; the strong culture of the region’s native Sámi population—had not been able to attract enough tourists.

The solution? Make Lapland the home of Santa Claus.

Korvatunturi was deemed too remote, so authorities focused their efforts on Rovaniemi, Lapland’s capital, which sits 364 kilometers to the southwest, just below the Arctic Circle.

Ninety percent of Rovaniemi had been destroyed during World War II, but in 1945, Alvar Aalto, the country’s greatest architect, started rebuilding it—designing the city in the shape of a reindeer head and antlers.

In 1984, the governor of Lapland declared the province “Santa Claus Land.” A Concorde jet began making Christmas flights from London to Rovaniemi’s airport—rebranded as “Santa’s Official Home Airport.”

A year later, the Finnish Tourist Board oversaw the creation of Santa Claus Village just north of Rovaniemi.

The attraction, which is operated by roughly 50 private companies, offers reindeer rides and includes the Santa Claus Post Office, which receives up to half a million letters annually (address: Tähtikuja 1, 96930 Arctic Circle, Finland).

The village is open 365 days a year, a veritable winter wonderland in winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Santa Claus: A Finnish emblem

Santa Claus with Finnish metal band LordiCredit: Cyril Doussin, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. Santa Claus poses with Finnish Eurovision winners Lordi

Today, the image of Finland’s Santa Claus is controlled by the Santa Claus Foundation, a private company that partners with 40 brands, including national airline Finnair and VisitFinland.com.

To spread the message that Finland is “the true Christmas country,” the foundation ensures Santa is visible practically everywhere, whether he’s shooting hoops with the Harlem Globetrotters in Helsinki or taking a goodwill train tour through Asia.

"To suggest Santa might be from somewhere else is received as a joke"

Foundation CEO Jari Ahjoharju calls him “the best-known Finnish person.”

Santa Claus is so embedded in the Finnish consciousness that to suggest he might be from somewhere else is received as a joke at best, and a slight at worst.

“Santa Claus is not from the North Pole,” a Finnish woman told me at an otherwise friendly business lunch, rapping her knuckles against our table in the strongest display of firmness I would see in my time in the country. “He is from Finland.”

How St Nicholas became Santa Claus

Alexander Anderson's original illustration of St Nicholas Santa ClausAlexander Anderson drew St Nicholas for the New York Historical Society in 1810

The real-life inspiration for the legend of Santa Claus is St Nicholas of Myra, who lived in the third and fourth centuries in what is now southern Turkey.

Known for his generosity, grace, and goodness with children, St Nicholas was venerated across Europe for his miracles. The anniversary of his death, December 6, was long celebrated with deeds of charity and kindness.

In 1810, one of the founders of the New York Historical Society, John Pintard, commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to design an image of St Nicholas for the society’s December 6 celebration.

Anderson’s illustration portrays the saint as the giver gifts to children, with stockings hanging by the fireplace.

"The real-life inspiration for the legend of Santa Claus is St Nicholas of Myra"

References to the saint in poetry, prose, and illustrations snowballed, and in time, he transformed from a slim bishop to a portly friend of the people, circling the world in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

He was renamed Santa Claus, a variation of his Dutch name, Sinterklaas. Thomas Nast is thought to be the first artist to show Santa living at the North Pole, in a December 1866 cartoon in the US magazine Harper’s Weekly.

The Finnish word for Santa Claus, Joulupukki, or “Yule Goat,” references both St Nicholas and early pagan traditions celebrated by Finns, in which men dressed in horned goat costumes demanded Yule feast leftovers.

Charity eventually replaced collection, and Joulupukki began handing out gifts, first knocking on doors and asking “Are there any well-behaved children here?”

Finland's booming Santa industry

Each year around 740,000 overnight visitors bring 260 million euros in revenue to Rovaniemi. In all, tourism employs 1,800 people in the city, which has a population of 62,420.

From November to March, there are direct flights to the airport from all over Europe, including Paris, London, Brussels, and Düsseldorf.

Citing the beautiful, snowy landscapes and the northern lights, Sanna Kärkkäinen, managing director of the local tourist board, puts it plainly: “Santa couldn’t be happier elsewhere.”

One of the city’s Christmas-themed attractions is SantaPark, which opened in 1998. Katja Ikäheimo-Länkinen and Ilkka Länkinen, the owners of a local hotel, bought a majority stake in the park from the Finnish government and the city of Rovaniemi in 2009.

At the time, its main attractions were carousel rides and souvenir shops, and it had yet to post a profit.

Says Ikäheimo-Länkinen, “We asked ourselves, ‘How can we make this better? How can we make the perfect fairy tale come true?’” The couple reworked and rebuilt SantaPark, adding Joulukka to its attractions.

What it's like to visit SantaPark

Built in Syväsenvaara Mountain at the site of a former air-raid shelter, SantaPark is accessed via a sloping 50-meter tunnel, a simulacrum of the northern lights reflecting green and purple off the walls.

As my group descended into the belly of good cheer, our giggling “elf” guide Sophina—an adult human—became more animated as we advanced. My mind, unaccustomed to seeing such unchecked exuberance in anyone older than ten years, pinballed between amusement and wariness.

By the time we reached the center of SantaPark, we had crossed the Arctic Circle. Soft white lights twinkled from trees and pine boughs, and presents were piled everywhere.

Elves, too, were everywhere, sorting letters in the post office, teaching in the elf school, and assisting Mrs Claus in the gingerbread kitchen. All felt calm, all felt bright.

I boarded a sleigh-shaped train and scooted through interactive winter wonderland scenes, stumbling off five minutes later feeling mildly queasy. Later, I was told that one boy had taken the ride more than 2,000 times.

In the elf workshop, I sat at a log table and made a Santa ornament out of red felt, wood, and wool. With Sophina beaming by my side, I nailed it to the wall alongside dozens of other Santa ornaments: Santas with short beards and poofy ones, rosy cheeks and white ones.

Yet Santa was not in the post office or his office. His wooden chair, covered with pillows and reindeer fur, was empty.

Ikäheimo-Länkinen smiled when I asked how many Santas there are in SantaPark. “We actually only have one—one who will visit all the houses all around the world,” she said.

I wondered: When would I get to see him?

Designing Finland's "Santa Claus tradition"

Santa Claus souvenir dolls from LaplandSanta's Claus's image is carefully curated by Finland's government

Finland’s official Santa Claus wears only clothing approved by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment.

His waistcoat, for example, must be made of red felt and paired with a “light-colored” linen shirt, “moss-green trousers,” white gloves, wool socks, and a red felt hat, according to A Little Book About Christmas, written by Ilkka Länkinen.

Other “important elements” include a “large stomach” and glasses, which can be round or rectangular but must have metal frames.

Santa’s conduct is also tightly controlled. He “never appears to be in any kind of rush,” the book states, he will not discuss politics or religion, and he “does not drink alcoholic beverages.”

In 2017, Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture added “the Santa Claus tradition” to the National Inventory of Living Heritage alongside 51 other items, including sauna bathing and the right to visit anywhere in nature.

“The Santa Claus tradition in Finland is known everywhere in Finland and in many other countries as well,” wrote the directors of the National Board of Antiquities, which is responsible for the list.

Sustainable tourism in Santa's Lapland

Reindeer wearing Christmas colours in snow at LaplandSustainability is now at the centre of Finland's festive tourism strategy, with local wildlife under threat from cliamte change

Nevertheless, the Finnish home of Santa Claus is in peril. The Arctic is warming three times faster than the global average, and a 2021 report by the Finnish Climate Change Panel predicted that Rovaniemi would be one of the areas in Finland hit hardest by climate change.

“A warming climate makes winter tourism with its snow- and ice-based activities extremely vulnerable,” Dr. Kaarina Tervo-Kankare, a researcher in Arctic tourism and changing environment at the University of Oulu, and two colleagues wrote in 2013.

About three-quarters of Finland, which has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2035, is covered by forest and it has some of the cleanest water and air in the world. The country has 41 national parks and about 200,000 reindeer.

"The goal is to transform Finland into the most sustainable travel destination in the world"

Now Finland is making tourism promotion synonymous with protection of its natural assets. The goal is to transform Finland into the most sustainable travel destination in the world.

In June 2020, the country launched a seven-step program to help companies and destinations adopt more sustainable practices. Those that have completed the training and audit receive a Sustainable Travel Finland label, which is reviewed every one to two years.

By protecting their part of the world, Finns hope to attract travellers committed to doing the same.

Santa Claus is coming to Joulukka

Decades have passed since my childhood, but some things never change. On the night I finally spot Santa, he is sitting on an intricately carved wooden chair in his command center in Joulukka.

Fresh pine boughs hang above his head, and elves linger by his side, agents of cheer. His boots are wet from the snow.

Smiling, I wait my turn to see him, and when he holds out a white-gloved hand to me, I approach. Then he asks what I want for Christmas, and I tell him.

Originally published in AFAR (December 14, 2021)

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