In Lapland, Finding Santa at the Source
Sunday, December 25, 2005
The night is silent, except for the crunching of boots on newly fallen snow that glows silver beneath a full moon. We German, French, English, Dutch and American tourists carry lanterns with flickering candles as we walk to the edge of a frozen lake in Finnish Lapland, above the Arctic Circle.
We gather in a semicircle around a translucent pulpit carved from a giant block of ice. Lutheran Pastor Vilho Vahasaria briefly tells the Christmas story in Finnish and English. We then sing together, each in our native tongue, the carols "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night."
Our voices rise as one, but in five different languages. As I sing, I'm reminded of stories of enemies on the battlefield pausing for Christmas and singing common songs from separate trenches ringed by barbed wire. Twice in the last century, the ethnic groups represented here on this snowy night were locked in mortal combat. Yet all the while, we and our parents and grandparents shared the same songs -- songs of peace.
The Christmas Eve service was the only sacred moment during my Christmas journey last year through Lapland, home of the Sami people, who are best known for tending reindeer herds while dressed in colorful clothes and elf-shaped boots. Most of my time was spent on secular sports and celebrations.
The Finns have capitalized on the naturally occurring accouterments that are part of the Western world's fantasies of what Christmas is supposed to be like. In the past two decades, Finnish Lapland has become one of the "in" places for Europeans to spend Christmas holidays. Increasingly, Americans are discovering it, too.
After all, as every Finnish child knows, Santa lives and works in Lapland. And where else can you find millions of snow-covered pine trees surrounded by 200,000 reindeer? Reindeer, by the way, slightly outnumber people in this sparsely populated area that begins about 500 miles north of Helsinki.
During our four-day stay in Lapland, my then 12-year-old daughter and I went on a reindeer safari, rode snowmobiles into the forest to find the perfect Christmas tree, cruised on an icebreaker and deliberately slipped into a hole chopped into a frozen bay for a 15-minute swim.
A reindeer named Charlie pulled Santa to the door of our lodge. We skied, tobogganed down a chute lighted by flaming torches, slept a major part of one night in a four-bedroom igloo, toured husky dog and reindeer farms, and repeatedly warmed ourselves with hot mulled cider served in wooden cups. All the while, the snow kept falling.
Although we were very far from home, it looked and felt a lot like Christmas.
"But isn't it cold and dark there in the winter"?
That is what every one of your friends will say if you tell them you plan to spend Christmas in Lapland.
Well, average daytime temperatures in December range from 5 to 26 degrees. But with the proper clothing, we comfortably spend as much as eight hours at a time outdoors. If someone had told us that many lodges provide cold-weather clothing, we wouldn't have stupidly dragged all that stuff with us. Dark? Well, the sun never really breaches the horizon during our stay. But dawn lasts from about 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by a long dusk. Plus, the moon glows not only all night, but all day. In summer, as you've no doubt heard, they call this the land of the midnight sun. Having visited in winter, I think of it as the land of the breakfast moon.