Searching for Santa Claus

For decades, some people have held fast to the belief that the hometown of the holiday icon is in northern Finland—not the North Pole.

Searching for Santa Claus

For decades, Rovaniemi, Finland, has been known as the “Official Hometown of Santa Claus.”

Courtesy of Visit Rovaniemi

Daniel Day-Lewis is known as one of the best Method actors of his time, identifying and understanding his characters not just by imagining but by inhabiting their worlds. For his role in 1996’s The Crucible, he “stayed on a Massachusetts island in the film set’s replica village—without electricity or running water—planted fields with 17th-century tools, and built his character’s house,” per the Guardian. To portray Bill Cutting, the butcher who gouged his own eye out in a fit of rage in Gangs of New York, Day-Lewis spoke and dressed like an 1860s New Yorker for the entirety of shooting. (He eventually caught pneumonia as a result of his threadbare clothes.) And six months after 1993’s In the Name of the Father, in which he played a Belfast man unfairly accused of terrorism, Day-Lewis was still speaking with the Irish accent he’d adopted for the role. “That was a hard one to let go of,” he told Rolling Stone in 2003. “I loved that man.”

Still, with all due respect to Day-Lewis—who retired from acting in 2017—one could surmise that he would have lessons to learn from the Christmas elves of northern Finland, who flit through Joulukka, Santa Claus’s fairy-tale pine-packed forest. Here, light-footed and gay, elves assist the big man himself at his command center and toy factory, where the scent of freshly shaved spruce emits from the functional woodworking stations and a whirring machine puffing with fluff is stuffing velvety pink unicorns. But you can’t just arrive at Joulukka, or make your own way—it does not appear on any map. A visit must be arranged.

And so. On a night so dark and fuzzy I felt like I was stumbling through an inside-out mitten, I was unceremoniously deposited in the middle of this very forest by a hired driver who disappeared as economically as he’d arrived. At times, I could not see my own hand in front of my face. At other times, the only thing lighting my way were candles in the snow and the high-pitched voices of said elves, pip-squeaking, bright, cutting through the cutting cold. I made polite conversation.

How long have you been an elf?
127 years going on 128.

Are you ever scared out here?
No. We have lots of animal friends around that help us.

How are you today?
Only a bit tired from my flying breakfast with reindeer.

Where is the restroom?
I will show you to the magic hole where travelers go to help their tummies feel better.

This forest, this visit, was not for mere folly. Instead, it was more of a mission—spend two weeks in the world’s happiest country, criss-crossing it by plane, train, ski, snowshoe, car, and foot, all in the hopes of finding a man who somehow seemed everywhere and nowhere at once: Santa Claus.

Both reindeer and the Northern Lights are hallmarks of Finnish Lapland.

Both reindeer and the Northern Lights are hallmarks of Finnish Lapland.

Courtesy of Visit Rovaniemi

In 1927, a Finnish radio producer named Markus Rautio announced a discovery on his show Markus-sedän lastentunti, or “Children’s Hour with Uncle Markus”: Santa Claus’s home had been “located” on Korvatunturi, a fell in Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region, on the Russian border. Translated from Finnish, Korvatunturi means “Ear Fell,” a nod to the mountain’s two points, which resemble the upright ears of an elf. From his home in Korvatunturi, Rautio suggested, Santa Claus could hear even the smallest whispers carried by the north wind.

Even though Santa Claus may have been paying attention, it took time for the tourism board to hear the whispers of potential. Niilo Tarvajärvi, another renowned radio and television personality, began to raise the idea of commercial opportunity after visiting Disneyland in 1959, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that the idea to capitalize on the Santa Claus mythology gained any real momentum. Lapland covers roughly one third of Finland’s total land area and is home to just three percent of the country’s population. But despite its many assets—counting one of the few remaining untouched wilderness areas in Europe; strong Sámi culture—the Finnish tourism board concluded that the “natural and cultural advantages of Lapland were insufficient in attracting tourists in the desired numbers,” wrote Michael Pretes in a 1995 research paper, “The Santa Claus Industry.” The solution? Assert that Lapland was the home of Santa Claus in every which way.

Instead of centralizing the industry around Korvatunturi, which was deemed remote and inaccessible, Finland decided to focus on a town 245 miles southwest: Rovaniemi, which already had an airport built by the Germans during World War II. Ninety percent of the town was destroyed during the war, and in 1945, the Association of Finnish Architects commissioned Alvar Aalto, the country’s greatest architect, to rebuild the Lapland capital. Aalto designed the town in the shape of—what else—a reindeer antler and slowly, the town grew again.

Five years later, Rovaniemi received another boost from former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who was interested in visiting the Arctic Circle. In one week, a minuscule log cabin had been built for Roosevelt, furnished with chairs designed by Aalto himself. Wrote Roosevelt in 1950, per the Eleanor Roosevelt Digital Papers: “We went at once to a post office on the Arctic Circle. A small log building which had been put up in a week. It contained one room for the office, a little kitchen, and one bedroom. It had been opened for our coming so that I might mail the first letter home from the Arctic Circle. This I addressed to the President of the United States.”

The log cabin, in fact, was not in the Arctic Circle—it was just to the south. No matter. The cabin became an attraction in and of itself, visited by Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. By 1984, the governor of Lapland had declared the province “Santa Claus Land”; the airport rebranded as “Santa’s official airport.” That same year, a 96-seat Concorde landed at Rovaniemi airport for Christmas flights, receiving a welcome from 90 percent of the local population on the tarmac. Seats cost $2,199 each, or $5,354 today. The Christian Science Monitor recounted a guest’s experience on said flight: “‘It was worth every penny we spent on it. . . . Mind you,’ she adds, and her voice does not suggest ostentatious wealth, ‘we’re not rich people.’”

A year later, the Finnish Tourist Board formalized the “Santa Claus Work Group” and opened Santa Claus Village, an amusement park operated by roughly 50 privately owned companies offering reindeer rides, tours of the cabin Eleanor Roosevelt first visited in 1950, and a look at the “Santa’s post office” that receives more than half a million letters annually. Santa Claus Village is open 365 days a year, a veritable winter wonderland in winter, spring, summer, and fall.

Today, Finland’s Santa Claus licensing is controlled by a privately held company that partners with 37 brands, including national carrier Finnair (the “official airline of Santa Claus”) and Visit Finland, the country’s national tourism organization, to promote Lapland’s Santa Claus attractions in Finland and abroad. To spread the message that Finland is “the true Christmas country” and “homeland of Santa Claus,” the foundation ensures Santa is visible practically everywhere, whether he’s shooting hoops with the Harlem Globetrotters in Helsinki (and encouraging children to have a hobby) or going on a goodwill Christmas tour through Asia by train (to show how important it is to use ecologically friendly transportation). “Santa Claus is a very important ambassador for the Foundation and especially for Finland, because he’s the best-known Finnish person,” says Jari Ahjoharju, CEO of the Santa Claus Foundation.

As a result, Santa Claus is seemingly so embedded in the Finnish consciousness that to suggest he could possibly, probably, maybe, perhaps, be from somewhere else is received as a joke at best, and a slight at worst. Even the illustrator who drew the rosy-cheeked, twinkling Santa for Coca-Cola in 1931 is of Finnish descent, didn’t you know?

“Santa Claus is not from the North Pole,” a displeased Finnish woman told me at an otherwise friendly business lunch, rapping her knuckles against our table in the strongest display of firmness I would see in my time in the country. “He is from Finland.”

Santa Claus receives more than half a million letters each year.

Santa Claus receives more than half a million letters each year.

Courtesy of Visit Rovaniemi

The real-life inspiration for the legend of Santa Claus is St. Nicholas of Myra, who lived considerably far from the Arctic Circle, in what is now southern Turkey. Known for his generosity, grace, and goodness with children, St. Nicholas was venerated across Europe for his quiet ability to perform miracles. (In addition to being the patron saint of children, St. Nicholas is also the patron saint of archers, prostitutes, teachers, and travelers.) Since the 4th century, the anniversary of his death, December 6, has been celebrated with deeds of charity and kindness. When settlers from Europe arrived in the so-called New World, they brought this tradition with them. For hundreds of years, as a religious figure, St. Nicholas was immune to creeping mass commercialism.

But in 1804, the founder of the New York Historical Society, John Pintard, named St. Nicholas patron saint of both society and city; in 1810, Pintard commissioned artist Alexander Anderson to design an image of St. Nicholas for the society’s December 6 celebration. Thought to be the first “American” image of St. Nicholas, Anderson’s illustration shows the saint giving gifts to children, with stockings hanging by the fireplace. References to the saint in poetry, prose, and illustrations snowballed, and in time, the saint transformed from a slim bishop to a portly pal of the people, circling the world with reindeer. The name Saint Nicholas, too, got a makeover, becoming Santa Claus, “a natural phonetic alteration from the German Sankt Niklaus,” per the St. Nicholas Center at Virginia Theological Seminary (its tagline: “discovering the truth about Santa Claus”). In a December 1866 version of Harper’s Weekly, cartoonist Thomas Nast placed Santa Claus at the North Pole, and a hometown story version was born—in the United States, at least.

The Finnish word for Santa Claus is Joulupukki, or “Yule Goat,” which references the amalgamation of St. Nicholas and early pagan traditions celebrated by Finns, which saw men dress in horned goat costumes and demand leftovers from the Yule feast. Charity eventually replaced collection, and Joulupukki began handing out gifts, first knocking on doors and asking “Onko täällä kilttejä lapsia?” or “Are there any well-behaved children here?” Still, for nearly a century, wherever Joulupukki appeared, his secret home was always believed to be one place: Korvatunturi, where he would return by reindeer after delivering gifts.

In practical matters, to get anywhere near Korvatunturi by flight, you fly by plane to Ivalo, the northernmost airport in Finland and in the European Union as a whole. As we approached one day in late November, I squinted out the window, trying to discern what was road, what was river, what was mountain. A thick coat of snow hugged the earth, making the task from 20,000 feet feel as fruitful as remembering how to spell lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas, the longest word in the Finnish language. (Its translation: “airplane jet turbine motor assistant mechanic, non-commissioned officer, in training.”) Eventually, I turned from the window, resigned. There was too much white.

On the ground, the situation wasn’t much clearer. Though it was just north of 1 p.m., the sun had all but set. The mountains were covered in Cool Whip–like tufts, the rivers creaking slowly under their white eiderdown. The roads—aside from two well-carved tire tracks—were the crunchy white of granulated sugar. I had been informed they would be, and yet I was still surprised: When I had told a contact in Helsinki I would be traveling this far north, she nodded thoughtfully and suggested I drive slowly. “You know, we don’t really salt our roads,” she told me. “It’s not so good for the environment.”

By the time I made it to Saariselkä, a village 18 miles south of the airport that counts 350 full-time residents, the sun had fully set. It was -5 degrees outside. At a roundabout, a woman driving a team of sled dogs waited for me to pass. In the parking lot of the town grocery store, a man on skis glided off into the invisible beyond, a bag of chips in hand. It would be another hour still before I’d find my own accommodation in the disorienting darkness, thanks only to a reindeer farmer named Ulle who jumped in my car to direct me down an unplowed road, tapped his number into my phone in case I needed any assistance in the coming week, and disappeared. It was just me and the woods.

The next morning, I drove into the 980-square-mile Urho Kekkonen National Park toward Korvatunturi, white-topped trees winking with snow as far as the eye could see. Outside, the most noise I’d hear would be the squeak and crunch of snow underfoot. Inside the visitor center, there was little else but the melodic clink of spoons against ceramic, the scent of coffee and munkki—cardamom doughnuts—warming the room, and a band of Germans murmuring their contentment before clicking back into their cross-country skis. Outside again, when I looked at Korvatunturi and its twin peaks, I did not hear anything but the wind.

In Rovaniemi, by contrast, the sounds of Santa abound from the time you step off the plane, one of the mere 740,000 overnight visitors who help employ 1,800 people and bring 260 million euros (US$293 million) in revenue to Rovaniemi—population 63,032—each year. From November to January, there are direct flights to the airport from all over Europe, including Paris, London, Barcelona, and Istanbul. “Tourism has become a true success story,” says Sanna Kärkkäinen, managing director of Visit Rovaniemi, the local tourist board. “Surrounded by beautiful, snowy Lappish nature and under the Northern Lights, where the reindeer love to roam, he [Santa] couldn’t be happier elsewhere.”

Inside one of the cabins at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, which runs on green energy.

Inside one of the cabins at the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, which runs on green energy.

Courtesy of Visit Rovaniemi

Katja Ikäheimo-Länkinen grew up in Lapland, spending the summer sunlight playing in the forest and making cows: pinecones for bodies, and sticks for legs. Decades later, she would adopt this same aesthetic when thinking of the design for the Arctic Treehouse Hotel, which she opened in Rovaniemi with her husband, Ilkka Länkinen, in 2016—albeit with better construction materials: All shingle-clad chalets are topped with green roofs and stand on stilts made from Finnish wood, the shapes appearing almost as if they were ambling down the hill and merely paused in their tracks. (The pinecone cow is also the mascot of the Arctic Treehouse Hotel.) In each of the 32 units, northern-facing walls are made of glass, offering uninterrupted views of the surrounding forest and Arctic skies. Kourtney Kardashian visited in 2017.

The Arctic Treehouse Hotel is open year round, but winter is undeniably its most popular season. It seems practically designed for this purpose. In addition to the suites, the hotel also has a main building—shaped like a snowflake—counting a reception area, gift shop, meeting rooms, and restaurant, Rakas, with a menu designed by the chef and artist Petteri Luoto. Though the hotel offers the complimentary use of fat bikes, city bikes, toboggans, snowshoes, and Nordic skis, these offerings are only gently promoted, as if in tacit acknowledgement that Santa is the reason we’re all here, anyway.

Conveniently, after all, the Arctic Treehouse Hotel is just a short walk from SantaPark, a Christmas theme park that originally opened in 1998; Ikäheimo-Länkinen and Länkinen bought the majority shares of the park from the Finnish government and city of Rovaniemi in 2009. (SantaPark and Santa Claus Village are separate entities.) Then, the park’s main attractions were carousel rides and souvenir shops, and it was operating at a loss of $500,000 and had yet to post a profit. Says Ikäheimo-Länkinen, “We thought, ‘How can you make this better? How you can make the perfect fairy tale come true?’” For five years, Ikäheimo-Länkinen and Länkinen led with that mindset, reworking and reconstructing SantaPark, and adding Joulukka to its attractions.

Originally built in Syvasenvaara Mountain as an air-raid shelter, SantaPark is accessed via a 150-foot tunnel that slopes slowly toward Christmas central, a simulacrum of the Northern Lights reflecting green and purple off the cavern walls. As my group descended quietly into the belly of good cheer, our elf guide Sophina giggled and jingled in step, becoming more and more animated as we approached. My mind, unaccustomed to seeing such unchecked exuberance in anyone over 10 years old, pinballed between amusement and wariness. If she was a kid on Christmas morning, I was the adult in the corner, resisting the urge to blurt out that none of this was real.

By the time we reached the center of SantaPark, we had crossed the Arctic Circle and into a facsimile of a Western Christmas: soft white lights twinkled tranquilly from trees and pine boughs, and presents were piled everywhere. Elves, too, were everywhere, sorting letters in the post office, teaching elf school, and assisting Mrs. Claus in the gingerbread kitchen. Somehow all felt calm, all felt bright. I snapped into the sleigh-shaped train ride and scooted through interactive winter wonderland scenes, stumbling off five minutes later only mildly queasy; later, I was told that there is a boy who has ridden this ride more than 2,000 times.

In the elf workshop, I sat down at a log table and made a Santa ornament out of red felt, wood, and wool. With elf Sophina beaming by my side, I nailed Santa’s likeness to the wall alongside a collection of dozens of other Santas: Santas with short beards and poofy ones, rosy cheeks and white ones. Yet Santa was not in the post office nor his own office, his wood seat plump with pillows and reindeer fur but bare of the plump man himself. When I asked Ikäheimo-Länkinen as to his whereabouts—and as to how many Santas SantaPark actually has—she smiled big.

“Well, we actually only have one Santa Claus—one, that will visit all the houses all around the world,” she says. “And whomever you ask in here, that is the answer you will get.”

Santa Claus is one of Finland’s most beloved holiday characters.

Santa Claus is one of Finland’s most beloved holiday characters.

Courtesy of Visit Rovaniemi

It is whispered that the official Santa Claus of Finland wears clothing approved and specified by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment of Finland. His “costume” includes nods to the Sámi people—the design on the shoulders of the waistcoat, for example—and the waistcoat itself is modeled after traditional wear from Rovaniemi. This waistcoat must be made of red felt, paired with a “light-colored” linen shirt, “moss-green trousers,” white gloves, wool socks, and a red felt hat, per A Little Book About Christmas, authored by Länkinen. Other “important elements”? A “large stomach” and glasses, which can be round or rectangular but must have metal frames.

Santa’s conduct is also tightly controlled. His hands will “always be visible in photographs” and he “never appears to be in any kind of rush.” He will not discuss politics or religion. Santa is an “upstanding citizen who does not drink alcoholic beverages.” (He will also not discuss alcohol.) A visit with Santa Claus is also never quiet; conversation never stilted. Instead, I was told, it should be like an evening at the orchestra: Santa, the conductor, controlling the tempo and tone, though the tone is always light and the tempo, more often than not, is as peppy, poppy, and loose as Gershwin’s “Walking the Dog.” More people are always waiting, of course.

In November 2017, Finland’s Ministry of Education and Culture decided to make Joulupukki—or the Finnish Santa Claus tradition—even more official: it would be included in the National Inventory of Living Heritage alongside 51 other items, including sauna bathing and everyman’s rights, or Finns’ right to visit anywhere in nature, even if that area of nature is owned by someone else. “The Santa Claus tradition in Finland is known everywhere in Finland and in many other countries as well,” wrote directors from Finland’s Board of Antiquities, which is responsible for the list.

Yet in the same way Finland has uniquely positioned itself as the home of Santa Claus, it is uniquely at risk of losing it. The Arctic is warming three times as fast as the global average, and a 2021 report by the Finnish Climate Panel predicted Rovaniemi would be more affected than any other area in Finland: higher temperatures are wreaking havoc on the region’s snow cover, threatening traditional Sámi reindeer husbandry and travel to the region. As Dr. Kaarina Tervo-Kankare, a researcher in Arctic tourism and changing environment at the University of Oulu, wrote in 2013: Finland’s Christmas tourism “has been assessed as the most vulnerable tourist season in the world because a white Christmas cannot be postponed to another month.”

Nearly 80 percent of Finland’s land area is covered by forest—most of it indigenous—and it has some of the cleanest water and air in the world. It counts 40 national parks, and nearly 200,000 reindeer. But instead of forgoing promotion for protection, Finland is trying a different tack: making promotion and protection of its natural assets synonymous by adapting and communicating high standards of responsibility. The goal is not just to be sustainable, Fins say, but to be the most sustainable travel destination. By being clearer about protecting their part of the Earth, they hope to attract travelers committed to doing the same.

In June 2020, the country unveiled Sustainable Travel Finland, a seven-step program for companies and destinations to help them adopt more sustainable practices. (Those that have completed the training and audit—like the Arctic Treehouse Hotel—receive a Sustainable Travel Finland label, which is reviewed annually.) A little more than a year later, in September 2021, Visit Finland became a member of the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC), which establishes standards for sustainable travel and tourism. It is urgent, ongoing work: Finland’s Arctic Strategy, which drives sustainable development in the Arctic, has made sustainable tourism one of its priorities; the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, which is responsible for Finland’s tourism strategy through 2028, has identified supporting sustainable development as its primary goal. Finland has also pledged to become carbon neutral by 2035. Santa Claus, of course, is part of the messaging, and in a December 2020 call with Ireland’s ambassador to Finland, Ruth Parkin, he invited children to get involved. “They have wonderful ideas, and we need them now. Because we have to help the environment and do something about climate change,” he said.

On the night I finally spot Santa, he is sitting on an intricately carved wood chair in his command center. Fresh pine boughs hang above his head, while elves linger by his elbows, agents of cheer. His boots are wet from the snow. I eye him as suspiciously as I did when I was 10 and he appeared on a coal-colored night at my home in Germany. Decades have passed since then, but some things must just never change. I wait my turn, smiling, and when he holds out a white-gloved hand to me, I approach. Then he asks what I want for Christmas, and I tell him.

>> Next: Westarctica, Antarctica: A Very Big Little Country

Katherine LaGrave is a deputy editor at AFAR focused on features and essays.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR