In 2010, Rovaniemi in Finland received the status of the official hometown of Santa Claus
Image: Pawel Kopczynski / Reuters
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas Just like the ones I used to know Where the treetops glisten and children listen To hear sleigh bells in the snow.”
Until my flight was about to touch down in Rovaniemi on a fine wintry day in January some years ago, the above lines merely symbolised a Christmas carol to me. But, watching the blanket of white snow wrap the Finnish city from above, minutes before landing—frozen lakes, glistening treetops, snow-covered houses—I could already feel the magic in the air.
I was in the capital of Lapland to chase the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights) and the first glimpse of the Finnish city told me I was in for something good.
That we were going to stay in what was possibly the most spectacular hub of Santa Claus added to the magical feeling.
Popular legend goes that, in order to conceal his original home at mysterious Korvatunturi (‘Ear Fell’), Santa Claus would come down to the Santa Claus village in Rovaniemi to meet his followers. In 2010, the city received the status of the official hometown of Santa Claus.
We were staying in a glass igloo right outside Rovaniemi. With thermal glass and heated floors, they offer the comfort of lying back on warm beds in sub-zero temperatures and watching through the glass ceiling a panoramic view of the night sky. It was late evening as we approached our igloo and we could see around us about 20 such homes lit up, dotting, along with pine trees, the horizon.
The pulverising cold, at -11 degrees, first hit us when we left the igloo to head to a snow hotel for dinner. The food could wait, we ordered a peg of neat Scotch first. Once the alcohol warmed our sagging nerves and sinews, we asked the waiter to recommend some local specialities. Would we like to go for some reindeer dishes, he asked?
While it took a minute for the offer to sink in (we weren’t sure if Rudolph would approve), we were informed that reindeer husbandry was a form of livelihood that dated back centuries in Lapland. The animal’s meat was an essential part of the Lappish cuisine and our server recommended the sautéed reindeer served with mashed potatoes and fresh lingonberries.
We were apprehensive but the first bite allayed our fears. The meat was tender, well prepared and delicious. It helped to know that reindeer meat is low in fat and was as healthy as fish. We ended the night on another Rovaniemi specialty called ‘Leipäjuusto’, a dessert made with fried cheese and served with fresh cloudberries.Lapland in Finland is one of the best places to witness the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, that paint the sky in streaks of red, green and purple
Image: Max Topchii / Shutterstock.com
Happy with a hearty meal, we returned to our igloo and turned on the aurora alarm in our room. Once the alarm is set, it would alert us whenever there is auroral activity and ensure that we don’t miss the phenomenon in our sleep. But when we woke up next morning, we realised that the alarm hadn’t gone off. Our journey of several thousands of kilometres had come to nought on the first night.
We hoped to get over our disappointment with some late Christmas cheer, so we started the day by heading off to the Santa Claus Village at Rovaniemi located right on the Arctic Circle.
The queue to meet the man himself was long and winding, so we decided to look around an exhibition on Christmas traditions first. You get to see Finnish traditions as well as customs followed by different countries during Christmas time, Christmas videos and stories about Santa Claus.
Once done, we joined the queue to meet Father Christmas. It seemed unreal when we finally stood in front of the jolly, plump man with the long, white beard.
All the cynicism from our grown-up lives seemed to vanish as we jostled with our kids to shake his hand and click a photo.
We picked up a few postcards from the souvenir shop and headed to Santa’s Main Post Office to tell our friends and families back home where we were. But the post office, too, with elves running all around gave us a moment’s pause. If there was something called Neverland, this had to be it.
Post-lunch, we headed for our last stop at the Raitola Husky and Reindeer Farm where one could play with Santa’s favourite animals. We went on a two-hour husky safari on a sledge through vast, white expanses till we reached a clearing with a frozen lake right at the centre. Here, we tried our hand at ice fishing, but there wasn’t much of a catch and, instead, we enjoyed sitting around an open fire with a cup of coffee, reminiscing about our day.
We returned to our igloo, content. Aurora Borealis had escaped us, but we had a story to tell.
As we tucked ourselves in on our final night, in the comfort of our warm beds, our glass ceiling lit up all of a sudden, as if someone had flipped a switch. Streaks of red, green and purple lights that emanated in the sky were streaming in, turning the night’s tangible darkness into the colour palette of an Impressionist painter.
Aurora Borealis was here. Santa’s gift had finally arrived. (Yogi Shah is the co-founder of The Villa Escape, a bespoke travel organiser.)
(This story appears in the 14 April, 2017 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)