Santa Claus is undoubtedly a very busy man. About 5,00,000 visitors from across the world visit the small town of Rovaniemi every year, many just to see him. So when a group of us — journalists and influencers from India — get an appointment with Father Christmas, we dress in appropriate shades of red then headed to the Santa Claus Village in Finland. (It received the status of the official home of Santa Claus in 2010.)
We arrive an hour before our appointment. Bright red boards greeted us at the entrance, pointing to the attractions of the village: a year-round office of Santa Claus, a restaurant, shopping areas, a husky park, and snowmobile trails in winter. The structures, made of stone and wood, have pointed roofs. Santa’s original home is known only to a few apparently, but his office is no secret: it is nestled in the woods of Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, on the edge of the Arctic Line.
This year, Rovaniemi is celebrating the post-pandemic tourism boom. The grand opening of the Christmas season began on November 19 at the central square of Santa Claus Village. As part of the festivities, the Mayor of Rovaniemi presented the annual UNICEF donation made by the city of Rovaniemi to UNICEF Finland. The traditional opening culminated in Santa’s arrival and speech.
Standing there, in the northern-most region of Earth, the village is joyously festive — a spectacle with mounds of snow, decked up trees, and yellow lights adding warmth in the bitter cold.
No ordinary post office
First, we visit the post office. Unlike the drab, functional ones back home, this one is filled with postcards; colourful candles; stuffed toys of Santa Claus and owls; and magnets showcasing reindeer and the northern lights. A Christmas tree stands in the corner near a fireplace, with red and white sacks of gifts at its foot.
At the entrance, we learn that this is no ordinary post office. Two tall post boxes stand near the door: one marked ‘normal mail’ and the other, wearing a Christmas cap, marked ‘Christmas mail’.
Many of the workers at the post office are Santa’s ‘elves’. Katja, an elf who has been working at the post office for 15 years, beames at me from behind the counter. She and her elf friends patiently sift through the half-a-million letters that Santa Claus receives every year: He receives at least one letter every day.
Katja is sorting through the avalanche during Christmas, when as many as 30,000 letters for Santa pile up in just a day. These come mostly from Finland and other European countries; the UK, and Asian countries such as Japan and China. Sometimes the post office also receives gifts for Santa, including ornaments for his tree, toys, and even cutlery.
“We generally let Santa know what’s inside these letters, because it’s very important for him to know,” Katja says with an air of seriousness. “The most popular requests are for books, dolls, games, skiing and sports equipment, cookies and candies. Some write asking for smartphones, iPhones, computers. And some ask for world peace, good health for family, good fortune in studies, or a boyfriend or girlfriend.”
Santa Claus comes to town
After touring Tokyo and Singapore earlier this month, Santa Claus made a quick stopover in India before rushing back to Rovaniemi for the holiday season. His world tour was organised by Finnair and Visit Finland, and the jolly good fellow visited IIT-Bombay, hospitals including King Edward Memorial Hospital, and malls such as Phoenix Palladium for his India visit. With Finnair adding Mumbai as its second destination, it now operates flights from Mumbai and Helsinki three times a week. Though for Santa, of course, Rudolph and friends are also an option.
And the strangest requests? “Lots of children ask for pajamas,” she laughs. Not all the letters that come to Santa have postal addresses on them. The children just assume that Santa knows where they live. The elves reply to thousands of letters on behalf of Santa. Katja says, “Most of our replies go to schools, kindergartens and sometimes hospitals.”
After posting our letters, we walk to Santa’s office. A spirited elf meets us at the entrance and leads us down winding corridors. Along the way, we spot photos of dignitaries who have visited the most famous resident of Rovaniemi: actors, politicians, rockstars, world leaders. There is even a portrait of Santa with former India President Pranab Mukherjee.
We leave our phones outside and finally enter the large room where Santa sits, a myth in flesh. He is tall and looks reassuringly wise. Dressed in white and red, and wearing enormous boots, his magnificent beard flows down till his lap. He greets us not with a loud ‘Ho, ho, ho!’ but a polite ‘Good morning, how are you all doing?’ After a brief, friendly chat (see box) and – of course – photographs, we troop out towards our final stop that morning: a large enclosure full of reindeer.
The reindeer are as big as cows and as playful as dogs. We met moody and hyperactive teenage reindeer and some reclusive adult reindeer. They chase us around, excited to eat grass out of our palms, sometimes even nibbling our fingers with their tiny teeth. Once they eat all the food we carried, and disinterestedly posing for photographs, then saunter away to sunbathe.
We leave Santa Claus Village smiling. The village may elicit scorn from Santa Claus deniers and ideologues for making a spectacle out of an age-old myth and for promoting consumerism. But for us, and for all the happy folk around us, this place promises what we all often dream of: pure, unadulterated child-like joy.
The writer was in Finland at the invitation of Finnair and Visit Finland
An interview with Santa Claus:
What is your typical day like?
I sit here all day and meet wonderful people.
You receive so many letters from around the world. Which of these have stayed with you?
Everything stays with me. It could be a word or a phrase. Kids sometimes take it so seriously when they’re asked if they’ve been naughty or nice. You know, sometimes, they lower their heads and sadly admit they’ve been naughty. And that breaks my heart.
How do you decide who has been naughty and nice?
Everyone is nice. Everyone is innately good. But sometimes people have bad days. Don’t you have bad days?
How many Santa Clauses does Rovaniemi have?
There is only one Santa Claus.
Where is Rudolf?
He’s gone on a holiday. It’s a short holiday actually, only 360 days long. But my other reindeer are here.
How different is Christmas in Rovaniemi compared to other parts of the world?
Christmas is celebrated all the time here, all year round. Christmas is a state of mind.
We saw a photo of you outside with our former President, Pranab Mukherjee.
Yes, he came a few years ago. It was great to meet him. He gifted me a Ganesha. (The Ganesha sits on a mantelpiece along with other gifts given by various dignitaries.)
Does it worry you that because of climate change, there could be a green Christmas rather than a white one?
Yes, it is a worrying phenomenon.