is a freelance journalist who has lived in Finland for more than 20 years, during which time he has often seen, and been, Joulupukki.
Everyone knows that Father Christmas lives in Finland. Or at least that’s what the Finns like to believe. The national tourist board and the flagship airline Finnair publicise this factoid incessantly, protesting most indignantly about Swedish or Norwegian imposters. The idea that Father Christmas might live at the North Pole or in some mysterious Elf Land is of course out of the question, as nobody would profit from this.
Santa Claus is a famously jolly, sociable and talkative figure, who loves children and is always ready to share a hearty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Somehow it’s hard to imagine a character more distant from the hoary old stereotype of the reclusive and introverted Finnish male.
But thousands of foreign tourists still take the bait every year and make a flying visit to Finnish Lapland, splashing out several hundred euros per person for a single action-packed day. Many of these Santa tourists visit a special resort built near Rovaniemi right on the Arctic Circle, where they can queue up to meet the man himself, have a digital photo taken of the occasion by a techno-savvy elf, and buy kitsch souvenirs from Finns dressed in Lappish costumes.
The Finns’ own name for Father Christmas, Joulupukki, actually means Yule Goat – echoing a long forgotten pagan tradition. Joulupukki was originally a scary horned figure whose job was to ward off evil spirits. Rather than giving out presents, he used to demand offerings from everyone.
For today’s Finnish kids, the more kindly modern Joulupukki lives in Korvatunturi (Ear Fell), a tiny hamlet in Eastern Lapland near the Finnish-Russian border. Korvatunturi remains blessedly unsullied by Santa tourism, largely due to the lack of a convenient rail-link or airport.
Since Finland is logistically the first country on Santa’s annual gift-delivering itinerary, Finnish families actually get to meet him. Instead of invading homes by daringly dropping down the chimney during the night, he enters with his huge sack of presents more conventionally through the front door, early on the evening of 24 December.
Finnish Father Christmases are more likely to arrive in scruffy old overcoats than in a shiny suit in Coca Cola red. Any small children who are not cowering in the corner of the room in terror will be bribed, cajoled or compelled to sing a song for Santa.
If you haven’t got a suitably jolly relative or neighbour to play the part for your family, you can find your very own Rent-a-Santa by checking local newspaper ads and notice-boards in December. Playing Santa provides handy seasonal employment for cash-strapped students.
Hospitable householders often offer Father Christmas a shot of the hard stuff to warm him on his way, and over the years many Santas have taken undue advantage of such hospitality. To make sure you get a Father Christmas who is no more than a bit merry, read the small print of the pre-Christmas ads and choose a “Sober Santa” (raitis pukki).