SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Where Christmas never ends

Gifts central: The office of Santa Claus and the man himself in person (below).   | Photo Credit: Photo: Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

In the Arctic Circle, a legend became reality: We met Santa Claus.

From Finland’s capital, Helsinki, we had flown into Rovaniemi, the administrative capital of the province of Lapland. There, our friend Jari had asked if we would like to drive down to Joulupukin Pajakyla. When he had translated that lyrical Finnish name, we were delighted. So we had driven eight km out of town, and soon after the turn-off for Rovaniemi airport, had entered Santa Claus’ Workshop Village!

A large location board, painted like a Christmas card, identified the nine buildings in the village, some of them with peaked conical roofs like goblins’ hats. On the ground, just before we walked into the square fronting the most important places, was a circle. It carried the figures 66* 33’ 07” N. Very deliberately we stepped over the line and stood within the Arctic Circle.

Santa’s office



Around the square facing us, and beyond, were shops, restaurants, a mail handling centre, a world-spanning Christmas gallery, and everything else that a Santa-searching visitor could wish for. The prime destination, however, was the building with the tallest peak emblazoned with a huge portrait of the great white-bearded man himself. This was his office, we were told, and this is where he met visitors from around the world.

In late autumn in the Arctic Circle, it begins to get dark very soon. At the height of winter the sun does not rise at all. The sky had become leaden when we hurried up the steps of Santa’s office, checked in at the reception, and began our trudge to the audience chamber. Carefully, we picked our way across a floor that seemed to be made of large shards of cracked ice, illuminated from below. Then there was a winding wooden staircase that led past an antique device that Santa used to stop time so that he could reach all the children of the world on Christmas Eve. This Time-pause mechanism was really a huge clock with a vast pendulum tick-tocking slowly. At midnight, on December 24, which was Christmas Eve, it would stop. The globe would halt its rotation. Time would catch its breath. And Santa would speed round the heavens, harness creaking, bells jingling, reindeer puffing and, using magic shoes and chimney entering devices, he would distribute gifts while the whole world slept under his spell.

Then we were sitting on a bench in the ante-chamber, awaiting our turn to meet the timeless gift giver himself. Santa Claus sees one family at a time. For many, many, years … legend has it … he had never emerged out of his home in the far north. It was in a place called Korvatunturi or “Ear Mountain” which allowed Santa to hear the wishes of children from all over the world. His rocky home has probably given him the Finnish name of Joulupukki, literally Yule Billy-goat. Not a very polite appellation for a person otherwise revered as Father Christmas!

We were still mulling over that when the door leading to the Audience Chamber opened and a smiling man-sized gnome with a ginger beard, a red robe and a red peaked cap, ushered us in. We stepped through the portal and there, appreciably larger than life, was Santa Claus himself.

The flames in the fireplace winked highlights off leather-bound books, files and a bottle of warming liqueur. Half-filled sacks lay on the wooden floor. Santa, red-robed and white-bearded, sat on a high-backed chair, dominating the room.

In the presence of a legend

He joined his hands and said “Namaste. I have been to India and we’ve been expecting you.” His voice was warm, welcoming and reassuring: we were, after all, in the presence of a universal legend. He invited us up onto his platform, made us sit on either side of him. Then, when we asked him how tall he was, he stood up and put his arms around us. He towered. And all the while, the gnome photographed us, projected it on a screen, and recorded our conversation.

We wished him goodbye and left by a door that led down a flight of steps and into a shop. The photographs of us with Santa were ready. Enlarged and mounted. Also a CD of our conversation with him. We bought them to remember that it had all really happened to us.

After which we wandered around the rest of the village: shops, the Christmas House, and the Post Office from which every single letter written to Santa Claus is replied to and posted.

Now, when anyone asks us if there really is a Santa Claus, we say we met a man who looked like Santa Claus, spoke like Santa Claus, in the Santa Claus Village within the Arctic Circle. So who are we to say that there is no Santa Claus?