Millennium Post

Finding the real Santa

Even though my best memories of Christmas are associated with Lucknow of the ‘60s, a Christmas experience I find difficult to forget is my meeting with the ‘Real Santa Claus’ some years ago. Let me share this experience with you.

I travelled all the way to Lapland, northern Finland, beyond the Arctic Circle, where the ‘original’ Santa Claus resides in a huge, cavernous log-house in the heart of Santa village where his busy elves work overtime to make it an efficient habitation, surrounded by the thickest snow you have ever seen.

It is a two-hour flight from Helsinki to Rovaniemi. The airport is decorated with colourful ribbons, balloons, cut-outs of Santa Claus and reindeer pulling his sleigh through fluffy cotton representing snow. This sight, however, is not exclusive to Rovaniemi. This is the common Christmas decoration throughout northern Europe. But in the Nordic countries Santa totally dominates the Christmas proceedings.

Good commercial sense dictates that Santa be universalised to boost Christmas sales. But he also has to be nationalized in the Nordic states to boost Christmas-related tourism. In this regard, the Norwegians too have made a weak bid to confer on Santa Claus a Norwegian persona. For instance, the town of Drobak, half an hour south of Oslo, is where Norwegian myth would have us believe that Julenissen or Santa Claus lives. In the middle of the town is Julenissen’s post office where the ‘Nissen’ receives mail from those parts of the world, which give credence to his Norwegian nationality.

But how can you have Santa Claus without his reindeer-driven sledge? For this you have to visit the Santa village and the Santa caves near Rovaniemi in Finland. Adjacent to Santa’s abode off Rovaniemi is a reindeer park, a sort of stable for Santa’s transportation when he travels on Christmas eve, across the globe with his bagful of gifts. With the permission of his ‘elves’ children can even take a joyride on one of Santa’s very own sledges. The post office in the heart of the Santa village must be one of the busiest (in this season) in the world. Millions of letters addressed ‘Santa Claus, Finland’ are cleared, stamped by this post office. Santa’s secretariat, rather like our own PMO, reads the letters and even drafts replies which, again, are routed through the ever busy post office. In the deep cave, the elves are busy knitting, decorating shops and manning a children’s toy train through a gentle, amusing dreamland. And selling curios!

An audience with Santa himself is the high point of the visit. The choreography is spectacular. Through a gigantic log-door emerges Santa in knee-breeches, hand knitted stockings, a red cape lined with white - a large, burly man, his long white beard coming up to his navel. His every statement is punctuated with a sort of laughter reminiscent of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. ‘My blessings for all the children of India irrespective of colour, creed or religion.’ His generally amiable manner provokes irreverence: ‘What kind of salary are you paid, Santa?’ I asked him in good humour. ‘For laughing, playing the fool and making divine statements all day?’ He guffaws. ‘Salary?’ he booms, ‘What is salary, my son?’

It is quite extraordinary how every person in Rovaniemi (indeed in Finland) sustains the Santa myth. ‘Who is this fellow, playing Santa?’ you ask. ‘That is Santa Claus, not anyone playing the role’ comes the response - with a smile which gives you a clue to a myth the nation has nurtured with a sense of fun. The elves are teacher and student volunteers from nearby schools.Nordic countries, particularly Finland, may have usurped Santa but the Santa myth has his origins elsewhere. St. Nicholas was Bishop in Myra in Anatolia (today’s Turkey) in the 4th century. In the 11th century, Italian sailors stole his remains from Myra and took them to Bari, in Italy, where his relics remain enshrined in the 11th century basilica of San Nicola. Somehow, legends of his generosity grew - the saint who brings gifts to the needy. The Reformation put a stop to all this but the custom of Sinter Klaas (a variation of St. Nicolas) continued in Amsterdam. The Dutch Colonists took the tradition to New Amsterdam, today’s New York. This legend mingled with some pagan Nordic myths to create the cheerful persona of Santa Claus whom the British named Father Christmas. Until the Concordes were grounded, there were regular Christmas time flights from London to the home of Father Christmas near Rovaniemi.
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