Visiting Father Christmas at his hometown, Joulupukin Pajakyla in Finland..
You may be old enough to know the truth about Santa. But a visit to Joulupukin Pajakyla or the Santa Claus village, 8 km north of Rovaniemi (the capital of Finnish Lapland) will please the eternal child inside the most hardened cynic. This is Santa's base of operations and he is a formidable industry here. It's a major marketing coup on the part of Lapland to establish that it's home to Santa Claus. So many countries lie within the Arctic Circle, but it was the smart Finn who saw the opportunity first!
The Finnish name for Santa Claus is Joulupukki, which literally translates to ‘Christmas goat' and refers to the Finnish tradition of men dressing up in goat's clothes and going from house to house to eat leftovers after Christmas. As you drive towards the Santa Claus Village, you see snowflakes falling, just like a scene from a Christmas card. The Village is full of buildings with peaked roofs, of one reads, ‘Santa lives here'. On the ground is a marker with the magical co-ordinates, 66*33'07” N, which indicate that the Arctic Circle passes right through the Santa Village. You see red-cheeked tots on ice slides, giant snowmen, ice sculptures and hear carol music playing round the clock. Kids can go on a safari in the snowmobile park, where they get to ride noisy machines and race through the white landscape.
Santa's office is where most people are heading to. You find yourself walking through winding pathways made of broken ice, which make creaking sounds when stepped on. You even pass a giant Gothic clock. Jari, a friendly guide from ‘A la Carte Lapland', talks about how Santa delivers so many gifts all over the world in one night. He merely slows down the rotation of the earth and flies around in his reindeer sleigh, travelling to hundreds of countries spreading cheer. We stand in a serpentine queue (with more adults than kids) for a personal interview with Santa. Santa's diary is completely filled with writings and on the wall of fame you see pictures of Santa with celebrities from all over the world. Many television crews visit Santa for interviews all year long.
Here comes Santa Claus…
When it is your turn to meet Santa, a tall blond Finnish elf will ask you to wait outside his door. You are then ushered into a picture-perfect room lined with red curtains and bookshelves filled with leather bound books. A familiar, jolly, grandfatherly Santa with a twinkle in his eye greets the Indians with a“Namaste!” Santa is like you always imagined him to be – He is overweight and dressed in his customary red outfit, with a long grey beard that cascades down to his lap. As you perch yourself on his lap, he enquires about the weather in your hometown and whether you have been good this past year! Santa is multi-lingual, speaks impeccable English and is a great conversationalist. As Santa puts a genial arm around his admirers the elf discreetly takes a group photograph. Once outside, you can have a copy of the photograph or the interview on a CD, for a fee.
Retail therapy could be next on your agenda. You could either spend time in the arcades here or buy yourself reindeer antlers or traditional cups fashioned out of birchwood, or even fluffy dog toys. You could spend hours, looking at the colourful variety of winter wear, t-shirts, and generally soaking in the Santa spirit. This is one place where it's always Christmas. Lunch at the Aurora restaurant was reindeer meat (poor Rudolph!) with mashed potatoes and salmon soup for the meat eaters and carrot and fromage soup with herbs for the vegetarians.
Santa Claus' post-office
The village is also home to the Santa Claus Post office where most of the letters addressed to Santa end up. If the envelope reads ‘Santa Claus, North Pole', they somehow manage to make it here. Cheerful elves dressed in red and green, with pointed hats, sort out the letters diligently and reply to those with return addresses. The letters are sorted by the country of origin. A blackboard mentions that since 1985, 14 million letters have been received, with the maximum coming from the UK. The letters are filled with stories of childrens' everyday life, their country and questions about Santa's life, his elves and reindeer. They are not just about what presents the children want for Christmas. Some letters talk about world peace or environmental issue. Letters come with bright drawings, photographs, and some even contain gifts for the reindeer.
The longest letter received by Santa is from a child in Romania and is kept in a special place. Every postcard or letter mailed from here has the special Arctic Circle postmark. Santa isn't too old-fashioned and can now be reached via e-mail. In the Santa Claus village, you learn that Santa has his own wish-list, which includes a world filled with smiling people and grownups who are good to kids and a comfortable pair of woollen socks.
Published in The Hindu Business Line ,2010