If you’re anything like me – single, with no young kids, and not 10 years old myself – then you might share my reluctance to admit any great excitement for Christmas. There’s something embarrassing about feeling giddy at the first sign of peppermint, and people look at you like you’re crazy if you sing along to carols in shops. Truth is, Christmas is for kids and most adults are proud to be cynical about the holiday. But, I wanted to go to Santa Claus Village
In the north of Finland, in a region called Lapland, is a place where Christmas is celebrated in all its red and white glory, by young and old, year-round. A place, where if you don’t have exuberant enthusiasm for all things merry, you’re not welcome.
Welcome to Santa Claus Village
It’s the land of the Northern Lights, a winter that lasts half the year, 185,000 people and 200,000 reindeer. The perfect place for Santa Claus to call home. He works at the Santa Claus Village, which is located on the Arctic Circle – not, contrary to popular belief, the North Pole (impossible, of course, since the North Pole is in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, no place for elves or reindeer).
It was revealed in the 1920s that Santa lived in Lapland, and Eleanor Roosevelt was the first official visitor to the Village in 1950; the cabin built in her honour is still standing.
The present-day Santa Claus Village opened in 1985 and is now Finland’s most popular attraction.
The nearest city to the Santa Claus Village, a short bus ride away, is Rovaniemi. The city was almost entirely destroyed by German troops during WWII, but was rebuilt to make the most of its unique attractions. Everything in town is Santa-inspired, and it is kept wintry year-round thanks to twinkling lights on the trees and billboards designed to look like falling snow.
Rovaniemi is a 12-hour train ride from Helsinki, passing through the cities of Turku, Tampere and Oulu. If I hadn’t been so keen to get to Santa, I might’ve stopped in to see these towns.
But keen I was, so after checking into the Hostel Rudolph, having a quick sauna at the Hotel Santa Claus, and a bite to eat at the world’s northernmost McDonald’s, I caught the Santa Express bus to the Arctic Circle.
“I’m excited for the Santa Village!” I told the driver. He looked at me like I was crazy, then kept a close eye on me through the rear-view mirror for the rest of the ride. I feared that perhaps adult Christmas enthusiasm is considered strange even there, so I took my seat, cranked up the Christmas tunes on my ipod, and quietly bounced all the way to the village.
As soon as I arrived, it started to really snow; I knew I was in for a good day.
All of the buildings are made of logs, and statues of Santa and his reindeer greet visitors at every doorway. You can write postcards at Santa’s own desk in the official post office, where 600,000 letters are sent from kids around the world each year. Paintings of Santa wink down from the rooftops, carols play from loudspeakers and lights twinkle on the trees.
There is a snowmobile park, a husky farm, reindeer rides, and cafés where you can try reindeer stew: a salty, delicious delicacy that will leave you feeling satisfied, and just a tad guilty. There are souvenir shops where you can buy any Christmas decoration ever made, and a history museum where you can learn the story of the traditional Finnish Santa Claus, Joulupukki: an ugly spirit who dressed in goat skins, scared children, and didn’t give presents but demanded them instead.
When the time came to meet the “man” himself, I pushed open a big door and it slammed behind me. I found myself on a winding walkway, surrounded by creaky sounds, dark corners, giant Gothic clocks and hidden tunnels. I’d suddenly left the merry world outside and entered Santa’s secret lair in a Tim Burton-esque haunted house. I expected Joulupukki in his feral rags to jump out at me from around every turn.
But when an elf appeared to lead me into the final room, it was the familiar, jolly Santa Claus who greeted me.
I sat on a stool beside him – the real Santa is more modest than those cheeky department-store Santas! – and we chatted about hockey and the weather.
It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a child, or that I had no children with me. In fact, the only time Santa looked at me like I was crazy was when I tried to say no to having my picture taken with him.
He put his arm around my shoulder, taught me how to say ‘juustojen’ – Finnish for cheese – and as the camera flashed, I smiled like a child who just found out that Santa really is real.
Written by Andrea McDonald for EuropeUpClose.com