Story by Carol Canter with Photos by Jack Heyman.
Dashing through the snow, meeting Santa with his reindeer, and awaiting the Northern Lights; all this and more created Christmas magic for our family. Since Santa Claus is kind enough to pay a visit to our home each Christmas Eve, we decided to return the favor and visit him at his Arctic Circle workshop in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland.
Having neither reindeer nor sleigh, we flew to Los Angeles to connect with Finnair’s direct flight to Helsinki. Several days later, we hopped their 1.5-hour shuttle north to Rovaniemi. Aside from the fact that Finnair offers good inflight service, the airline has the distinction of being the “Official Carrier of Santa Claus Land.” That made our 6-year-old daughter Nicole very happy, as she was carrying some precious cargo — a handmade gift for Santa. Let there be no mistake about it — this is the real Santa Claus. I know because Nicole knows, and she’s not easily fooled.
I won’t reveal all the details of her proof; suffice it to say all his answers made sense, and she was convinced this was not a department store imposter. He walked her outside in the snow to meet two of his reindeer and showed her one basketful of his mail — a fraction of the half million letters he received last year from more than 140 countries.
Santa lives on the Kovatunturi Fell, a remote ear-shaped mountain on Finland’s northeastern border with Russia, where he can hear the wishes of boys and girls worldwide in every language. Since “Ear Mountain” is a secret place that allows no visitors, his workshop has been moved to a more accessible Santa Claus Village. Here beside his workshop, is a post office that stamps his unique Arctic Circle postmark on all mail. Shops display designer leathers and furs, handmade clothing, and dolls clad in the traditional blue, yellow, and red embroidered Sámi costume.
The village incorporates an indoor fantasy play area, Kiddygarden Backpocket, where parents may leave their children under the charms of two elves, Putte and Eleanora, while they shop.
Of course, meeting Santa isn’t the only reason to visit Rovaniemi, an old trading settlement at the confluence of the Ounasjoki and Kemijoki rivers. Burned to the ground by Nazi troops retreating at the end of World War II, the entire city had to be rebuilt. Renowned architect Alvar Aalto designed many of its new buildings, including the cultural center Lappia House, the city library, and the town hall. The Arktikum, a crescent-shaped building completed in 1997, was designed by a Danish team to harmonize with the landscape. It houses the University of Lapland’s Arctic Centre and the Regional Museum of Lapland. With a population of 63,000, Lapland’s administrative and economic center is also the gateway to unspoiled nature.
We visited Rovaniemi in the January off-season after the warmth and magic of Christmas festivities had passed. A mere 24 hours also separated us from a chance appearance of the aurora borealis when the northern lights streaked the skies of Lapland with dazzling colors. Yet while these days just after the winter solstice were the shortest and darkest of the year, we filled them with snow play until the blue arctic light blended day into darkness.with snow play until the blue arctic light blended day into darkness.
Northern lights, reindeer. (Photo Credit: Antti Pietikäinen and Visit Finland).
On our first morning, toastily outfitted in winter driving gear, we were given a quick lesson in snowmobiling before revving our engines to about 40 kilometers an hour. Our cheeks tingled and eyes teared as we followed our guide across snowy fields and frozen lakes, passing cross-country skiers and horse trainers in graceful horse-drawn carriages.
Nicole slept through most of the journey, cozily wrapped in reindeer fur. She awoke to a sleigh ride at a reindeer farm, delighting in being pulled by this same animal that carries Santa’s sleigh to rooftops worldwide.
Inside a rustic cabin, a blazing fire and warm reindeer milk heated us while a Sámi ceremony inducted us into secrets of this ancient culture based on the herding of the wild reindeer. A lunch of reindeer stew with wild lingonberries and homemade beer and bread followed the presentation of our reindeer driving license and Arctic Circle crossing certificate.
The following day we traveled an hour to Santa’s Wildlife Park at Ranua. The world’s northernmost zoo was silent and majestic through dancing snowflakes and snowy pathways. We visited a polar bear, wolves, red foxes, owls, and other animals from the arctic wilds. Nicole sledded through the entire zoo, speeding down long hills, then letting us pull her uphill and along flat stretches.
Lunch was a steaming bowl of hearty salmon and potato soup, homemade bread, and ice cream topped with delicate orange cloudberries. At the neighboring Murr Murr Castle, she was costumed as an elf to visit displays showing each of Santa’s helpers at work: blowing glass, sorting his mail, and more.
Time didn’t allow us to go downhill or cross-country skiing, ice fishing, or on a rainbow safari — other popular winter activities available to visitors. But we did begin each day’s adventure with an early morning sauna and swam in the beautiful but cold swimming pool at our hotel, the Rantasipi Pohanjovi. After a sauna, entering the pool was more effortless than a roll in the snow that the Finns swear by, but not much. Invigorated, we then shamelessly indulged in the hotel’s splendid breakfast buffet.
While Christmas is the most exciting time to experience Lapland, late winter and early spring offer the best skiing when the sun shines on thick crusty snow, and the International Ice and Snow Sculpture Competitions are held. Summer, the season of the Midnight Sun, means long hiking trips with wildflowers carpeting rugged fells and swimming, canoeing, or fishing Lapland’s unpolluted lakes, rivers, and streams. Events range from the world’s most demanding Arctic canoe race to a golden trout fishing competition, gold panning championships, and wood sculpture competition. During one week in summer, works of art are sculpted from 200-year-old Finnish pines. Autumn paints Lapland with a brilliant, startling palette of reds and golds, and by season’s end, the bright yellow cloudberry and rich red cranberry ripen to their peak. FOR MORE INFORMATION: https://www.visitfinland.com/en/articles/meet-santa-claus/
Very informative and I just loved the northern lights photo.
Thank you for your comment, Wayne. I too love the other worldly beauty captured in the northern lights photo.
Nature’s crystalline beauty and the magic of the Northern Lights. What more can you ask for?
Only a sauna …