Finnish festivity

X'mas tradition

Finnish festivity

To meet a legendary person we flew to a fabulous land, in Finland. Framed in our hotel window, snow fell like goose down and settled on the pines.

Icicles twinkled from the branches and a courageous squirrel, with a fluffy, bushy tail scampered across the snow questing for a snack. This land had given birth to the legends of Santa Claus and his elfin helpers in red robes and pointed hats, busy packing gifts for the children of the world. We drove out to meet him and them.

The dark forests of the taiga spread on both sides of the road, a reindeer stag with superb antlers stepped out followed by a female. We slowed, stopped. Majestically, taking their time, they clip-clopped across the road.

We held our breaths, then whispered, “Are they wild?” “No,” said our guide, “All reindeer belong to somebody. But they are free to roam anywhere. This is Lapland!”

Lapland! Tales out of the lantern glow of our childhood filled our minds. Magical legends of elves and trolls and a white-bearded man flying through the sky on a reindeer-pulled sledge, delivering gifts to children on Christmas Eve.

Our friend said, “We’ve arrived.” Beyond gateposts with conical tops, like wizard’s hats, the village spread: brightly-lit log houses and a particularly large one with Santa Claus painted on its ice-cream cone tower. Most of the houses were single storeyed with wooden tile, shingle, roofs; a few with those curious towers. Under the platinum sky, against the dark green wall of the conifer forest, it looked like the set of a wild-west film with elves, reindeer and wands, not cowboys, horses and guns.

We walked across to a signboard painted like an illustration from a children’s bed-time story. It said, ‘Santa Claus Village, Arctic Circle’. Below was a sketch map of the place. Carried on the crisp, chill air was the sound of Christmas carols and the mouth-watering aromas of every Christmas party we’ve ever attended: flaky pastries and hot fudge, plum cakes, sizzling roast, crumbed ham and warm, crusty bread fresh out of the oven.
Old man’s mansion

We crossed a square, stepped over a line marked Arctic Circle and into the porch of the large wooden building with Santa’s portrait painted on its peaked roof. This was the mansion of the ageless man we had come to meet. We trudged up a flight of steps, past a board, painted like an antique manuscript.

It described The Earth’s Rotational Speed Regulator with a huge pendulum that, apparently, stopped exactly at midnight on Christmas Eve. It held back time so that Santa could deliver all his gifts around the world before Christmas day. We sat on a bench while the great pendulum tick-tocked,  bringing the world closer to that great night. “Santa is a busy man,” we were told, “but he still likes to meet one visiting family at a time.” We wondered how he converses with people from around the world. Does he really know so many languages or does he have a team of interpreters?  Our thoughts were cut short when the door opened and a tall, ginger-bearded, elf beckoned us in.

There, sitting on a throne on a platform was that great, lovable, living legend: Father Christmas, as large as life. In fact, very much larger! His silky white curly beard flowed down to his waist. His eyes twinkled on his spectacled cheeks. He raised his right hand in welcome and then, to our delight, he put his palms together and said, in a deep voice, “ Namaste! We’ve been expecting you.”

He asked us to step up and sit beside him. He told us that he had visited India: naturally, naturally, we’ve all received presents from him at Christmas. And all the while, the elfin man photographed us, projected our pictures on a screen and recorded our audience with the world’s best-known gift giver. Santa towered over us but he was so warm and benign that we were at ease in that comfortably untidy and cosy room. There were large, register-like books on shelves, a fat-bellied little bottle that probably contained a potion to bring good cheer when he rode across frosty winter sky, an antique globe and a half-filled sack.

We forgot to ask him how such a giant of a man managed to slip down the narrow chimneys of many houses. But if one can stop time and the rotation of the globe, floating down chimneys should not be a problem, or even teleporting through locked windows.

It’s always thrilling to encounter a legend, and we were brimming over with excitement when we left Santa, allowing another family to meet him. From the shop below his audience chamber, we bought photographs and the CD of our meeting with Father Christmas, and then wandered around the village. Here, every day is Christmas. Shops with wreaths of fir and decked out for the festive season sold everything anyone could want for Christmas. There was even a crib showing the greatly loved nativity scene.

We visited Santa’s ‘Post Office’. Every letter addressed to him is replied to, after March. There, in the mass of fan mail, was one from a child in India. “Yes, Santa wrote to him,” said one of the elfin postmistresses. “The only mail he does not acknowledge are those with illegible addresses.”

A little boy, gripping the hand of his large father, asked, “Where are Santa’s reindeer?” The postmistress smiled at him, “They’re out grazing in the forests. They have to build up a lot of strength to fly all round the world in 24 hours” Then she turned to us and said, “Do you have reindeer in India?” “No we don’t.” And then we added, “We do have elephants.” She clapped her hands in delight. “Ah! Elephants. And maharajas. And the Taj Mahal. How magical!”

Both the Finns and we live with magical beings in fabulous lands. All we have to do is believe.

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