Yes, we have visited Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, Lapland in Finland. It lasted no more than five minutes as it was nearly 6 pm and he works only till 6 pm but what counts is the fact that we have seen the real Santa, right? 😉
I have to disappoint you. Well, Santa doesn’t actually live at the North Pole but in his own village. It’s located in Napapiiri – 8 km north of Rovaniemi. Charming, yet commercial place where you can meet a lot of Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish and even Polish. The whole village is made up of several buildings: shop pavilions, Santa Claus’ Main Post Office and, obviously, the office of Santa Claus itself.
In front of it you can see a line painted on the ground with an inscription Arctic Circle 66° 33’44”. To make everyone even more into the Christmas spirit there are carols playing from the speakers all the time, even during Summer season. And so we pitched a tent behind the petrol station across the street merrily humming Jingle Bells and Silent Night. It is truly a magical place, full of love and joy.
At the post office you can send a letter or a postcard to a friend with a special Santa stamp. There are two postboxes: the current one, from which cards are sent immediately after stamping, and the Christmas one – cards will not reach the addressee before the celebration day. During the year the post office receives approx. 700,000 letters from children from all over the world and most of them are sent from the UK, Italy, Poland, Finland and France.
Santa Claus in Rovaniemi – post office
You can also contact St. Nicholas via his website (he even has an Instagram account!!!) or order a letter that will be delivered to your home just before Christmas. Can you imagine the faces of the youngest family members when discovering the original letter from Santa Claus under the Christmas tree? Awwwww, I think I’m getting more and more sentimental.
Going back to the topic, in the shops in Santa’s village you can buy souvenirs and gifts, nothing surprising, but at the tourist information office for 50 cents (at least it was the price in 2011…) you can get a passport stamp from the Arctic Circle! A real treat for all those who deplore the lack of stamps in passports in the EU countries… How could I not have taken advantage of such an opportunity?
At Santa Claus’ office a cheerful elf asked us where we came from. Smiling we responded that we were from Poland and afterwards we entered into a long hallway going around the huge pendulum. It slows down the course of the Earth in the Christmas night so that Santa has enough time to visit all the children around the world. How beautiful!
Santa Claus speaks… Polish?!
When we entered the room where Santa Claus awaits the visits we felt a little bit intimidated. He was huge (his thigh was three times the size of mine), he had a long gray curly beard and … he was speaking Polish! „Dzień dobry, jak się macie?” (‘Hello, how are you?’), „Kiedy się spotkamy?” (‘When are we going to meet?’), „Tak, tak, w Boże Narodzenie!” (‘Yes, yes, at Christmas!’), „Pozdrawiam, trzymajcie się ciepło” (‘Cheers, take care’). As he spoke quite fluently and with a good accent, we thought he was probably a Pole who came here to earn some money… 😉
In reality, this charming man has learnt some basic phrases in several languages so as to enchant people. We sat next to him, when the elf in a red cap took a photo of us amusing us at the same time with a squeaky green ball. Yet, the biggest and most sincere smile on the face is still triggered by Santa’s ‘Ho, ho, ho!’. We kindly said goodbye and at the exit another jolly elf informed us that the picture … cost a mere 25 euros. Well, Santa, one can see you have a head for business. Whose parent wouldn’t buy such an excellent souvenir for their child? (I have to admit that I have decided to come back in a few years with my own kids!) Anyway, we felt it was a bit of a waste of money and, eventually, we came out empty handed.
But how come Santa Claus ended up in Finland if the historic St. Nicholas (also called Nikolaos of Myra) was a bishop in Turkey?
Actually, many factors can explain that. Let’s start from the beginning.
Where does Santa Claus come from?
In Finnish language Santa Claus is called Joulupukki and in a loose translation it means simply Yule Goat. Well, now we are probably even more in the woods than before …
In pre-Christian times goats were associated with the Nordic god Thor. They pulled his chariot across the sky and at the same time they provided him with food, as Thor was killing and eating them on the way. Then, he would resurrect them with his hammer nicely called Mjöllnir. Originally, the Yule Goat was a hideous demon who threatened children. At the time of Christianisation of Scandinavia people began to believe that this animal is an invisible creature that comes before Christmas to make sure that preparations for Christmas time are going smoothly (oh, this propaganda of the Church).
Now we have to move to the Victorian times in the UK for a while, where people believed in Father Christmas – a good and joyful spirit of the holidays, who didn’t have anything to do with gifts and children. Then he began to be associated with Saint Nicholas of Myra in Turkey, which came to the UK thruogh the Netherlands. Saint Nicholas in Dutch became Sinterklaas (can you see how similar the names are? Saint Nicholas > Sinterklaas > Santa Claus). According to tradition, Turkish St. Nicholas was known for handing generous gifts to the poor, so this merciful trait passed on to Father Christmas and began to be copied by other European cultures.
Going back to Finland, in the nineteenth century it became popular that someone from the family dressed up as a Yule Goat and, in such an outfit, handed gifts to the household. At the end of the century, following the Western European model, the traditional goat was replaced by a human being who would hand gifts, although the name Joulupukki remained.
Officially, Joulupukki lives in the Korvatunturi Mountain (the Ear Mountain). It was a radio announcer, Markus Rautio, who came up with this idea in his radio play An hour for children with uncle Markus, which was popular among the youngsters. He once said that at Korvatunturi Joulupukki can hear best if children are well behaved and if they listen to their parents and, thus, he knows whether they deserve gifts or not.
In the 50s, Joulupukki began to visit children in Rovaniemi. In the neighbouring village of Napapiiri the first official tourist, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, visited him. In the 80s trips to Rovaniemi became so frequent that it was decided that a village of Santa Claus should be built in the place where the First Lady of the United States paid him visits.
He lives there with his wife and elves, but no one really knows where they come from. Traditionally, Joulupukki’s helpers were tonttu, little people, whereas traditional elves were the same size as people and they weren’t friendly creatures at all. Yet, commercialisation and the mixture of different beliefs and traditions led to the popularity of elves. And, although it’s difficult to imagine it today, the original Joulupukki doesn’t look like Santa Claus from the Coca-Cola commercials, although he wears a long coat. Okay, the red outfit is something they have in common. But still, he doesn’t ride his sleigh in the sky like Santa Claus, he only does it on the ground as the normal Joulupukki should do!
And you can see this original St. Nicholas near Rovaniemi. A giant, cheerful grandfather, who resembles more a woodsman in a coat. But he utters ‘Ho ho ho’, which is an irrefutable proof of his originality.
PS. Finally, the creator of the image of Coca-Cola’s Santa Claus, Haddon Sundblom, was the son of Finnish immigrants… Well, all roads lead to Joulupukki. 😉
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