Nordic countries, where reindeer roam the snow-covered wilds in winter, are battling to be Santa's official homeland in a bid to lure tourists and tap the season's lucrative spending. Christmas outlays in seven of Europe's largest economies are forecast to be $957 per household, while the average American will spend $1,236, according to Deloitte & Touche.
Finns say Santa lives in a cave in Rovaniemi, in northern Finland, while Swedes contend that his home is at the foot of a hill in Mora, in central Sweden. Norwegians argue that he has a house in Drobak, a town south of Oslo, and Danes say he lives in a castle in northeastern Greenland.
A hero to children around the globe, Santa is a valuable trademark. "There are a lot of Santas out there, and competition is fierce," said Lisa Johansen at the Santa Claus of Greenland organization. "Santa is a fantastic intermediary. People recognize him, and he stands for something honest."
Until now, the focus had been on tourism. Now, Finland is betting Santa can help spur sales of its wares. A Santa Claus Foundation, owned by member companies, has tripled partners to 57 in two years as businesses seek to generate sales by putting a common Santa logo on their products.
"We can help business in Finland by promoting Santa as a Finnish phenomenon," said Matti Lipponen, managing director and co-founder of the foundation. Companies will start exporting Santa-branded products in 2004, prompting an "increase employment and exports," he said.
While there are no statistics on sales of products bearing the logo, Saarioinen, a privately held Finnish food retailer, found in a survey that 90 percent of shoppers picked a Santa-branded product over the same item without a brand, Lipponen said.
The smiling Santa adorns 70 products in Finland, from chocolate made by Cloetta Fazer AB to ferries operated by Silja Oyj. Other members of the foundation include phone company Sonera Oyj, which merged with Sweden's Telia this year, airline Finnair Oyj and bank Nordea AB.
"It's a way to promote travel to Finland," said Ida Toikka-Everi, marketing manager at Silja, which has been a member since the start. "It gives Silja a positive label."
Despite concerns that fears about terrorism and war will have a negative effect on the travel industry, theme parks from SantaPark in Rovaniemi to Santaworld in Mora are expecting more visitors this holiday season. They each promise a meeting with the "real" Santa.
"It's exactly the type of experience people are looking for in a world that's increasingly perceived as dangerous," said Camilla Collett, chief executive of Santaworld.
Rovaniemi, which is inside the Arctic Circle, attracts about 500,000 tourists a year. At SantaPark, a partly government-funded attraction that opened in 1998, visitors can sample attractions such as a Rudolph-driven roller coaster or enroll in Elf School. Rovaniemi's Santa Claus Village also includes a reindeer park and a post office that gets up to 700,000 letters a year.
About 200 charter flights, mostly from Britain, will arrive in Rovaniemi this Christmas season, 20 percent more than last year, bringing at least 60,000 tourists.
"We were worried about the effects of terrorism, but we can now see that this year is going to be a record," said Leena Takalo at the Rovaniemi tourist office.
Sweden's Santaworld draws about 15,000 visitors from the last week of November to the first week of January. In Norway, the Christmas House in Drobak attracts 200,000 people a year.
Sweden's tourism industry generates about $14 billion a year, while the tally in Finland amounts to about half that. In Norway, tourism is an $11 billion industry.
But the real Santa, with aliases including Pere Noel in France and Shengdan Laoren in China, never set foot in Scandinavia.
The character stems from Saint Nicholas, a 4th century bishop in Myra in Anatolia, now known as Turkey. Legends of his generosity grew after sailors in the 11th century stole his remains and took them to Bari in Italy, and Saint Nicholas was incorporated into Christmas celebrations. His relics remain in the basilica of San Nicola in Bari.
The Dutch, who call their Santa figure Sinterklaas, took their custom to the United States in the 17th century when they settled in New Amsterdam, now New York. Sinterklaas became Santa Claus.
While not everyone is enamored of the idea of marketing Santa Claus, there are some who see Santa's image as the gift that keeps on giving.
"It seems silly to profile yourself" as part of Santa's homeland, said Stefan Oestroem, chief executive of Sweden's Paradiset DDB advertising agency. "He doesn't exist, so it's not trustworthy."
The Santa Claus Foundation disagrees.
"By branding products, we can increase our credibility" as Santa's homeland, Lipponen said. "The more companies that use the logo, the more everyone can benefit."
The Finnish foundation, which estimates that some 20 million products display its Santa logo, gets about $17,500 from each member and royalties from sales of Santa-branded wares.
The organization donates part of its annual income to charity. It also operates a postal service, where parents around the world pay for responses to their children's letters to Santa; the foundation gets about $5 per order. It has sold about 300,000 so far, Lipponen said.