I write a column about booze every other week for a major newspaper, and I often travel outside of the country, sometimes simply to drink some type of alcoholic beverage that I will eventually write about in my column. I also happen to be a father of two young boys. It therefore may not come as a total shock to learn that I am regularly seized by the terrifying notion that I am the worst, most horrible parent in the world. These moments usually strike when, say, I am sampling a vintage port on a lovely Portuguese afternoon or tasting a Dutch gin a stone’s throw from Amsterdam’s Red Light District, and then suddenly realize that back home in New Jersey it’s early morning and my wife is likely getting the kids ready for school.
Perhaps this is the reason that I recently took my oldest son, five-year-old Sander, along with me on a business trip to Finnish Lapland so he could meet the “real” Santa Claus. So many acquaintances have asked me what on Earth possessed me to take a five-year-old to the Arctic Circle in the middle of December — I’m still not exactly sure myself, but I’m guessing parental guilt played as big a role as any.
Even the elves at Santa’s Office, in Santa Claus’ Village, in Rovaniemi, Finland seemed incredulous that we should come from so far away to stand in line for something we could have experienced at the local mall. “You’re from USA?” asked the “elf” who logged our reservation to meet Santa, the one wearing a pointy hat and nametag that read “Lara,” who arched her eyebrow with the sort of disdain that only a local teen can convey to a visiting tourist. “What brings you all the way to Rovaniemi? That is a very long way to come just to see Santa Claus.”
“How did she know we were from the USA?” Sander asked.
“Well, you know, Santa’s elves know everything about everyone,” I said, skipping over the fact that I had just shown this particular elf my passport.
Sander was issued a special visitor’s badge, the prelude to a 45-minute wait in line at Santa’s Office. I was actually thankful we had to wait only 45 minutes. I’d heard another elf say to people in line behind us, “Unfortunately, as you can see, it is a very bad time. It will be at least two hours to see Mr. Santa Claus.”
Our meeting with Santa would be free. Free, I thought, how nice. How cosily Nordic. How quaintly removed from the crass American commercialization of Christmas. We had only been in Rovaniemi less than an hour at this point, and I had a lot to learn. The first inkling that free may have a slightly different translation into Finnish was a large sign with a camera in the red circle with a slash — the international sign for No Photos Please.
We entered a dark, blacklit, funhouse-like corridor. It seemed a strangely spooky decorating decision for Santa Claus. “This is a little scary,” Sander whispered.
“Well,” I said, holding his hand, “this is probably just to keep the bad kids away.”
That was kind of a lie, since there seemed to be lots of bad kids in line. For instance, a few spots ahead of us was the British girl who I’d just observed outside, nailing her little brother in the eye with a chunk of ice. There was also a lot of pushing ahead of us, most of it done by a busload of Italian tourists who’d spilled into Santa’s Office, all of them — kids and adults — wearing the exact same snowsuits. There was also a lot pushing in back, most of it done by the family from Argentina directly behind us — the ponytailed middle-aged father and his trophy wife and their pretty daughters in fleeces emblazoned with their local polo club who, for some crazy reason, felt the need to jump line, as if Santa might give away all his toys before they arrived for their meeting.
“Dad, this is a really long line,” Sander whispered. My son is a quiet, sensitive boy and he’d already flown eight hours on Finnair to Helsinki, calmly tagged along while his father took notes on Functionalist architecture, then boarded another early-morning flight north to the Arctic Circle.
“Why don’t we write out your list for Santa again on a fresh sheet of paper?” I said. We’d already written the list once on the plane, but I was desperate for some diversion.
“Transformers,” Sander said, patiently. “Playmobil Vikings. Lego Knights. Animals — land animals and sea animals. And a bike.” I wrote them in my notebook and then ripped out the page.
“Dad, I’m getting really hot,” he said. I could certainly empathize. Believing that the Arctic Circle might actually be cold in the middle of December, I’d dressed the boy in snowpants, two jackets, long underwear, subzero mittens, heavy boots, and a ski mask. But the Arctic Circle — even though it was snowing — remained a balmy 32 degrees on that day. The blustery weather we’d left behind in New Jersey only 36 hours earlier was more Arctic than the Arctic Circle.
At long last, with the Argentine kids practically forcing us along, we were escorted by an elf into a huge lighted room, with Santa Claus sitting on a little stage. Another elf stood behind a big camera. Sander, who just like his father is painfully shy in front of crowds, suddenly clammed up. Our elf almost had to push him in front of Santa, who spoke a gentle Finnish-accented English. I lifted Sander’s arm so Santa could take his wish list. “Oh, I see. Legos, Playmobils, a bicycle. And have you been a good boy…”
Sander did not seem to be breathing, and Santa beckoned me up on stage, too, to help the boy regain his voice, which never happened. Finally, the elf behind the camera made some noise and there was a photo flash and then it was all over. We were escorted out the door, through another dark corridor, and then into a room with a bank of screens and cash registers, and before I knew it I was paying 30 euros for five photos of myself and Sander flanking Santa.
We had now been in Rovaniemi for about two and a half hours. We still had another 45 and a half hours to go before we’d fly back to Helsinki.
I saw an advertisement for “reindeer safaris” and asked Sander if we should go for a reindeer sleigh ride. That’s when Sander — jet-lagged, overwhelmed by the items on his gift wish list, by very direct questions by strange adults, by a seemingly real Santa Claus, by being away from his mother for the first time and in very odd place — burst into tears. “Dad,” he said, “I just really really don’t want to go on a sleigh ride.”
“OK, OK,” I said, panicking. “What’s the matter? Are you scared?”
“Are you cold?”
“Well then, why in the world don’t you want to go on a sleigh ride? You’ve been talking about it for days?”
“I really don’t know!”
There were really only a few other things to do in Santa Claus Village. First, we could mail a letter from the official Santa Claus Post Office, the famed post office that’s featured annually in holiday newscasts responding to heartbreaking letters from children in the developing world. In fact, it receives hundreds of thousands of letters addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole,” and they are answered by dutiful Finnish postal service elves. We mailed back home one of the five photos we’d just purchased to mom and little brother Wes.
The only other thing we could do was shop for souvenirs and eat. “Would you like to buy something small?” I asked Sander. This put a gigantic smile on his face immediately. He spent at least an hour perusing stuffed husky dogs and reindeer, reindeer antler bottle openers, reindeer skins, “traditional” Sámi dolls, hats, slippers, and costumes, “I crossed the Arctic Circle” t-shirts, and all variations of Santa tchotchkes imaginable—Santa keychains, Santa shotglasses, ceramic Santas, Santas carved out of logs.
He ended up choosing an egg that you put in water and overnight hatches a plastic dinosaur. It’s the same thing he could have bought at Target back home — except in Santa’s Village, it was 10 euros. He was giddy with delight.
“Did you have to wait long to meet Santa Claus?” asked the teenage elf working the cash register. When I told her that people were waiting over two hours, she rolled her eyes as if to say, stupid stupid stupid people. “We only waited 45 minutes,” I said.
“Well, I wish we could have more Santa Clauses here,” she said. “But of course there is only one Santa Claus.”
Finally, after a huge lunch of salmon grilled over an open fire inside a “traditional” Sámi teepee (16 euros, including hot chocolate and beer), Sander said, “I think I feel better now. Can we still go on the sleigh ride?”
As the sun began to set around 2 p.m., I paid 28 euros for our sleigh ride. We were accompanied by a man dressed in traditional Sámi costume, who told us he wasn’t really a Sámi, but that his “wife’s family was.” The sleigh ride lasted about seven and a half minutes, about 500 meters, roughly around the far edge of the Santa Claus’ Village parking lot.
Afterward, Sander got to pet the reindeer and was thrilled beyond belief.
At Santa Claus Village, I saw the same sort of bewilderment on the faces of parents that I’d seen at Fátima, in Portugal, when I’d visited earlier this year.
At Fátima, many of those faces belonged to people who had crawled, painfully, on their knees for miles in hopes of some miracle to be found where the poor shepherd children had once seen the apparition of Our Lady of Fátima. The pilgrims tossed candles, wax arms, wax kidneys, wax lungs, other wax body parts, and even wax babies into the open fire in hopes of curing various ills. Yet for me, the greatest mystery at Fátima was: How could one small town support so many tacky souvenir vendors hawking the exact same religious tchotchkes?
Beyond my simple parental guilt, I’m starting to realize that our trip to Rovaniemi was, for me, as much of a pilgrimage as any to Fátima or Lourdes or Santiago de Compostela. In my own family, Christmas is a religion unto itself, and it has very little to do with Jesus Christ. We may not believe in a whole lot, but our belief in Santa Claus is absolute and unbending.
My mother is a woman who, when she built an addition to my childhood home, had the architect design the whole thing around a 2-story-high corner of the living room so that it could accommodate a 25-foot Christmas tree. This part of the house was referred to, year-round, as the Christmas Tree Corner.
In her new home my mother has a dedicated gift-wrapping room. She has six complete sets of Lenox Christmas china, dozens of festive Hummel plates, and literally hundreds of snowmen, reindeer, and Santa Clauses — wooden, plushy, ceramic, porcelain, you name it. She decorates with at least five Christmas trees of varying heights, including the recent addition of an “upside down” Christmas tree. A couple of years ago, she began to shine a revolving spotlight in the front yard that projects silhouettes of falling snowflakes on the house’s exterior. By the time our family convenes at her home for Christmas Eve, she has already thrown four previous Christmas parties.
In one nook of my mother’s living room sits what may be the world’s largest displays of Byers’ Choice Carolers — those ubiquitous limited-edition characters with the red rosy cheeks and lips pursed in song. My mother has collected Carolers that she feels looks like each member of our extended family, including third cousins, in-laws, and even people who are now dead. At least 50 Carolers stand in cotton-ball snow, around a frosted mirror that serves as a frozen lake.
Every year, after Christmas Eve dinner at my parent’s house, there is the sound of jingle bells at the door, and a buzz arises at the children’s table as another “real” Santa Claus makes a special last-minute appearance.
We grew up as Methodists, but several years ago my youngest brother Brad converted to the Bahai Faith — which he and his wife now practice. When Brad sat my parents down and informed them of his conversion, both Mom and Dad were supportive and loving about his decision, if a bit mystified and uncomfortable. For instance, my father, who is a wine connoisseur, was briefly concerned that Bahai didn’t permit the drinking of alcoholic beverages. My brother assured him that this was nothing he would miss.
Then Brad asked my mother if there was anything she wanted to know about his new faith. My mother’s first question to him was: “Will you still celebrate Christmas?”
During Brad’s first Christmas as a practicing Bahai, my mother bought him a three-foot tall figurine: Santa Claus sitting astride a bucking reindeer, merrily riding him rodeo-style.
None of this is to say that Christmas is a religious holiday in the Wilson family. Not even close. You couldn’t even accurately refer to us as “C & E people” either because we only go on to church on Easter — well, every other Easter or so anyway.
This has always been a small bone of contention between me and my wife. Jen was raised in a strictly Catholic family. Her parents were Eucharistic ministers and she and her siblings did readings and even played violin at the Christmas mass. “Without religion at Christmas, it just feels like cheating,” she says.
My middle brother Tyler also married a Catholic woman, and they also have two children, an eight-year-old daughter and six-year-old son. I once asked him if he ever thought we cheated by celebrating Christmas in such a non-religious fashion.
“No,” Tyler said firmly. “To me, it’s really the celebration of the winter solstice. You know, the early Christians stole Santa Claus from the pagans.” Apparently, he’d been reading a book called Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men, by Phyllis Siefker, which explores the pre-Christian roots of Saint Nick.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Now you’re calling Christmas a pagan holiday? Your kids go to CCD.”
But Tyler wouldn’t relent. “Well, to me, it’s a pagan holiday. When the Christians tried to convert all these people in northern Europe, they didn’t have any good festivals to entice them. The pagans had the better parties, Christmas being one of them.”
Tyler and Brad don’t agree on very much — they will debate politics, sports, business, education. But on this topic, they are of one mind.
“Is Christmas really the celebration of the birth of Christ around here in this family?” Brad says. “Does Mom have a cross and a manger scene anywhere to be found? No. We have those carolers all over the house, and a little wooden New England town with all the lights and crap. It’s not like we have the choir singing ‘Away in the Manger.’ We’ve got Mannheim Steamroller playing on the stereo.”
“The only fervent belief around here is that we fervently don’t want to talk about spiritual matters,” he continues. “Frankly, I would have caused the most discomfort if I had actually become a real Christian and then came to Christmas complaining that we didn’t celebrate the holiday in the right way.”
The day after the visit to Santa’s Office, Sander and I traveled a few miles outside of Rovaniemi to visit a reindeer farm. There we met a Sámi man who’s name happened to be Sami. “I’m Sami the Sámi,” he said, and Sander thought this was hilarious. Sami gave us a basket of moss and lichen — “reindeer chocolate” — and Sander fed the reindeer by hand. “These are working reindeer,” Sami said, “not meat reindeer.”
Wandering around the farm, we came upon an albino reindeer. “Every farm must have one white reindeer,” Sami told us. “This is for the elves. If there’s no white reindeer on the farm, the elves will tease the other reindeer, and soon all of your reindeer will disappear.” Sami went on to describe all the predators that the reindeer farmer must watch for: brown bears, wolves, lynx, wolverines, even golden eagles.
Afterward, we had hot chocolate and coffee inside the tradition Lappish farmhouse, and Sami had Sander try on a handmade Sámi hat and traditional costume. We ended up buying the hat (20 euros) but passed on the costume (90 euros).
Driving back to town, I took a detour on some smaller, snow-covered roads, and we drove for miles passing beautiful tall evergreens thick with snow. Nothing but forest seemed to stretch for miles and miles. “That is so cool that bears and wolves and eagles live here,” Sander said, and I had to agree. On this quiet road, away from all the Santa kitsch, I was reminded why I am drawn back time and again to the North. I was so happy that I was now experiencing this with my son.
That night, Sander and I wandered into downtown Rovaniemi looking for a restaurant, through the Christmas Market stalls selling even more holiday knick-knacks. I found a place serving “authentic” Lappish food and I jokingly told Sander he could eat reindeer meat for dinner if he’d like. He took me seriously.
“Yeah!” he said, jumping up and down, “I get to eat reindeer meat!”
“You do know where reindeer meat comes from, don’t you?” I asked.
“Reindeer. Of course.”
“Rudolf is a reindeer. Are you OK with eating a reindeer?”
“Dad, I already eat pork. That comes from pigs, and I don’t have a problem with that.”
I read further on the menu and saw an entrée of bear meatballs. “Oooh,” said Sander. “Bear meatballs, bear meatballs! I want to eat bear meatballs!”
As we ate our bear meatballs (42 euros), Sander grew somewhat philosophical about the day’s events. “I was thinking there was something different about the Santa who I met today,” he said. “He was different that the Santa that comes to Grandmommy’s house on Christmas Eve.”
I nearly choked on my own bear meatball. Here I’d dragged this kid all the way to the Arctic Circle in an attempt to establish, once and for all, that Santa Claus exists, is real. And now it seemed all I’d accomplished was to raise even more penetrating, challenging questions than previously existed. I started to get a little queasy.
But Sander continued: “I think the Santa that comes to Grandmommy’s must be an elf who’s coming to spy on us.”
I was relieved. And it also quickly occurred to me just how silly all of this fuss was. There’s no room in Sander’s mind for disbelief. Not yet. Perhaps this should have been more obvious to me, and didn’t require a trip to the Arctic Circle to realize, but it matters little to him which of these guys in the red suits are the so-called “real” Santa Claus. Not the guy who comes to my mother’s nor the guy I just paid 30 euros to have our photo taken with. Because, in the end, I’m the real Santa Claus — the one who’s going to have to deliver on the bicycle or the Transformers or the Legos, or the animals, both land and sea. Or not. It’s all on me.
As we moved onto dessert, Sander had one more thought that he planned to share with the kids in his kindergarten class. “People think Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, but he really lives in the Arctic Circle. Because nobody lives at the North Pole.”
The next morning, we arrived in darkness at SantaPark, the subterranean theme park near Santa Claus’ Village, burrowed hundreds of feet below the ground. We entered and walked down another oddly creepy entryway, complete with spooky forest sounds piped-in. “Those aren’t real,” Sander said.
“What sort of rocks do you think these are?” I said.
“Fake ones,” Sander said.
We paid 45 euros to enter, and caught the tail end of the hourly Elf Show, a desultory extravaganza of dancing and lip synching, with a little air guitar and even air trombone thrown in for good measure. After that, Sander and I laughed our way through the animatronic figures of the Magic Sleigh Ride, and then we decorated gingerbread cookies with an elf who had a diamond stud in her nose. We also participated in an Elf School, which involved a lot of overacting on the part of the young elves who made us all wear elf hats and led us through a ridiculous elf dance. “Not my favorite thing,” Sander said, and I had to agree.
Just as we were about to leave, we strolled through a surreal exhibition of ice sculpture. An Ice Elf, who looked like Björk, took our 10 euro entry fee, gave us big white furry coats, and accompanied us into the freezer room. “Please do not touch anything,” the Ice Elf said as we wandered through aisles of ice bears, ice wolves, ice eagles, and ice geese.
Next to the ice sculpture display was the SantaPark Ice Bar, which was open to both kids and parents. The same Björk-looking Ice Elf tended bar. Only two drink choices: Hypnotiq served in a hollowed-out block of ice for the grown-ups (ten euros), and some sort of grape juice for the kids (five euros). The grape juice was served in a plastic cups with a little blue strobe light in the base that you were allowed to keep.
I’d been to Ice Bars before in trendy clubs in trendy Scandinavia cities, but I felt that this Ice Bar was a strange but inspired choice for the SantaPark. It was also strange but inspiring to be having a drink at a bar with my five-year-old son.
“I think that Ice Elf is real,” Sander whispered.
“I think so, too,” I said.
“Can I have another juice?” he whispered.
“Are you still thirsty?”
“No,” he said. “I just want another blinking glass.” • 21 December 2007
Lead image by Visit Finland via Flickr (Creative Commons). All other photos by the author.