The town that sold Christmas

How did an unremarkable logging city in Finnish Lapland establish itself as the home of Santa Claus?

First published in the Financial Times, December 2018. Main photograph by Tim White

You can tell a lot about a person by how they approach their meeting with Santa Claus. According to Antti Nikander, the drily humorous co-ordinator of the Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland, Chinese president Xi Jinping didn’t once stop smiling, while the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov was “very serious, very official”. American talk show host Conan O’Brien “was almost leaping around, he was so excited”.

I am standing in the queue at Santa’s “office” in the Santa Claus Village, a series of log cabin buildings five miles east of Rovaniemi. Beneath a series of flash-lit portraits of the big man with everyone from F1 driver Mika Hakkinen to horror-metal Eurovision winners Lordi, it dawns on me that I’m nervous. I’ve heard tales of children clamming up in fear when the big moment arrives, often after waiting hours in the queue stretching back to the gift shop, manned by jolly young female elves with names such as Tuiske (blizzard) or Karkki (candy), each with an elaborate elfish back-story. I get it now — queueing to meet Santa, hidden from view in his ersatz cabin emanates hygge, feels like waiting to meet a god.

I’ve heard tales of children clamming up in fear when the big moment arrives, often after waiting hours in the queue stretching back to the gift shop

I’m here in November to find out how this utilitarian town, which was all but obliterated during the second world war, rebranded itself as Santa’s home and created a tourism boom.Last year, close to 580,000 visitors flew into Rovaniemi (pop. 62,667), almost double the number in 2010. Much of that growth has been driven by Asian visitors, especially from China. More than a million annual visitors are expected in Rovaniemi by 2022, and this December is expected to break all records, helped by increasing numbers of flights, including a new easyJet route direct from London to Rovaniemi. Most of the hotels and resorts in the forests around the town have been booked up for a year, and many are scrambling to build extra glass igloos, Arctic pods and snow hotel rooms to meet the demand.

I stay at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, a series of modern pods that are less tree houses and more glass-fronted, rectangular boxes that look out over the pine forests. It opened in 2016 (35 more rectangular pods were added this summer in expectation of this month’s influx) and is one of a spate of hotels and resorts built in the past few years, including the Chinese-owned Nova Skyland hotel.

On arrival, the day before my meeting with Santa, I make the 15-minute walk through the forest from the hotel to the Santa Claus Village. The series of log-cabin buildings around a central concourse has the feel of an outdoor shopping arcade, which it kind of is, given that the majority of the spaces in the mini malls are selling souvenirs, from festive tchotchkes to Moomin mugs.

Despite the unseasonably warm weather (locals live in growing fear of climate change), the Santa Claus Village is just about keeping the festive spirit alive. A muzak version of “The First Noel” tinkles from the speakers, while behind Santa’s office, reindeers with sleds trundle tourists round a little track of sludgy, machine-made snow for €17 a go. A group of young Asian visitors are doing an Instagram-ready impression of a many-armed Hindu deity along the border of the Arctic Circle, which cuts through the “village”.

I pop into Santa’s post office, where many of the tables seem to be taken up with young Asian visitors writing postcards home. While post from here is stamped with a special Arctic Circle postmark, it also receives a flood of letters from around the world (apparently any addressed to “Santa Claus, Lapland” will arrive here, but most people find the full address via Google). A board shows where most of this year’s 500,000-plus letters have come from: China is in first place, then Poland, followed by Italy, the UK and Japan. “The UK was top until last Christmas,” explains post elf Elina, a middle-aged woman in regulation elfish get-up. “Now, China is way ahead: we’ve had a hundred thousand letters just from China this year. And Poland is always up there — there’s a real tradition in Poland of writing letters to Santa Claus.”

China is way ahead when it comes to letters to Santa: we’ve had a hundred thousand this year.

Over lunch at Santa’s Salmon Place — which serves flaky salmon cooked over an open fire in a space inspired by a Sami lavvu tent — I get chatting to Pei Ling and Tin Ting, two young female friends visiting from Ningbo, China. While the main purpose of their trip was to watch “handsome” Japanese champion figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu compete in Helsinki, Rovaniemi was the obvious add-on. “Everyone in China knows about the home of Santa Claus,” says Tin. “We don’t really celebrate Christmas, but Santa’s a big deal.”

While Rovaniemi has long sent Santa Claus on ambassadorial visits east, Pei and Tin first knew of Rovaniemi via Fliggy, a millennial-focused travel site launched by Chinese e-commerce giants Alibaba, which chose the town as its first featured trip back in 2016. There was a massive launch party here featuring three winners of The Voice of China, the singing contest whose final drew a billion viewers this year. Now, just about everywhere in Rovaniemi accepts Alipay, Alibaba Group’s mobile payment system, which is also available on Finnair flights from seven Chinese cities to Helsinki. At the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, where Pei and Tin are also staying, you can pay in Alipay and communicate with reception using WeChat, the ubiquitous Chinese social media/messaging service. “It’s like being at a hotel back home,” says Tin.

The next morning, I go to the town of Rovaniemi to get the story of why Santa landed here in the first place. Sanna Kärkkäinen is the managing director of Visit Rovaniemi, and with her short black hair and cheery alertness, you might describe her as “elfin” even before you knew her job. She laughs indulgently when I point out that her name is one letter away from “Santa”.

The starting point for Santa tourism in Rovaniemi, she says, came in 1950, when Eleanor Roosevelt decided to visit this logging and mining town that was being rebuilt with the help of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. Wanting to create a winter wonderland for the former first lady, the town hastily built a cosy log cabin on the line of the Arctic Circle, east of town, in what would become the Santa Claus Village. “There was nothing there before that,” says Kärkkäinen. “Rovaniemi wasn’t a tourist destination, and no one travelled to meet Santa.”

Even though St Nicholas, the third-century saint that inspired Santa Claus, lived in Turkey, an illustration in Harper’s magazine in 1866 is credited with establishing Santa’s home as the North Pole. In 1927, Finnish radio personality Markus Rautio (aka “Uncle Marcus”) declared on air that Santa’s workshop had been discovered in Lapland’s Korvatunturi, or “Ear Mountain”, a remote peak on the Russian border. In Finland, at least, the story quickly caught on, and Finnish mothers still warn children that Santa and his elves can listen in on their words and dreams at Ear Mountain.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that Finland’s tourist officials started to seriously market Lapland as Santa’s official home, with his office in Rovaniemi. In 1981, a Santa letter-writing competition in the UK led to six children winning trips to Rovaniemi, and on Christmas Day 1984, 20,000 locals turned up at the airport to watch the first Concorde flight arrive in Rovaniemi from London, which would become regular winter charters.

The Brits led a Santa tourism spike that continued through the 1990s, followed by the Christmas-loving Spanish and, curiously, Israelis, after an Israeli called Shimon Biton moved here with his local wife and set up a charter travel company in 1995. Santa has been welcoming visitors to the Santa Claus Office in three-minute slots every day since 1992, as operators have added evermore reindeer sleigh rides, husky tours, snowmobile trips and the like. But, after years of steady visitor numbers Asia has driven 20-30 per cent growth every year since 2015. “With tourism from China, it’s snowballed so fast,” says Kärkkäinen. “With Japan, it was a long, slow burn; with China, it was an explosion.”

With Japan, the rise of tourism was a long, slow burn; with China, it was an explosion.

No matter the nationality of the visitors, though, one of Kärkkäinen’s main jobs is protecting the Santa story. Before I visit, I receive an email from one of her colleagues, reminding me that, “We love to collaborate with all media which respect the Santa Claus’ philosophy”. Kärkkäinen says her first question to potential employees at Visit Rovaniemi is: “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”

Hence, it’s hard to find out who it is I’m going to meet in Santa’s office. Kärkkäinen coyly stone-walls the question of who plays Santa round here, giving me a mock-admonishing look. What’s more notable is that I get the same response — “There’s only one Santa Claus” — from the barman at the Hemingway’s pub, and from Janne Honkanen, a local businessman who this month is set to open Octola, the area’s first luxury lodge.

All of this adds to my nerves when I finally find myself in the Santa queue. Antti Nikander, the village co-ordinator, admits: “As a child, I was terrified of Santa. When it came to shaking hands with him, it was me that was shaking.”

When my moment comes, Tuiske the friendly elf guides me into Santa’s warm lair, with its old maps, chests and olde world gifts, and I proffer a curiously over-enthusiastic “Hi, Santa!” Both his beard and stature are impressively large, and he has a deep, Finnish-accented “ho ho” that gives him just enough time to answer my questions, which are less penetrative than I’d hoped. He is surprisingly chipper, too, in that he seems to be in his seventies, and can welcome as many as 1,000 visitors a day in strict three-minute time slots.

I manage to gather that he’s just been in a meeting with his reindeers teaching them to use “RNS”, which he says is “like GPS for reindeers”. There’s a lot he can’t remember, or leaves to his elves: how old he is, how many reindeers he has, how to make an iPad, etc. Anyway, most kids ask for toy cars or dolls, he insists; “or, they ask for health and happiness for people they love  . . . all children really are nice”.

Santa apologises for not remembering Xi Jinping (“everyone is equal here”), though he does remember recently meeting a 97-year-old “child” from Italy, who had long dreamt of meeting Santa. “That was really magical,” he says. “Meeting you is magical, too.” While I don’t claim to be in the Jeremy Paxman league when it comes to interrogations, I feel entirely outgunned.

After a quick shot by Tuiske the photo elf, I head downstairs to get the flash-lit Santa shot that sells for €30. It has been a consummate performance by Santa, his elves and the people who make tourism tick here. The Santa story is alive and well — which is just as well, because this place depends on it.

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