By Vishnu Makhijani
Ruka (Finland) : Imagine Santa Claus dropping in for lunch and handing out presents – in May!
Here we were, a group of Indian journalists travelling through Finland on a familiarization tour of this Nordic nation of five million. Seated at a long table in a comfortably warm log house, we were halfway through lunch when the unexpected happened.
Outside, the sun played hide and seek with the fluffy white clouds in the clear blue sky. On the ground, the snow was still thick but melting as a pair of reindeer gambolled around, alternately sniffing at the clear and crisp air and chomping away at the green ferns laid out for their meal.
It was a picture postcard setting that made one wonder if it could be bettered.
The clomping of heavy boots on the wooden stairs broke my reverie. There was a blast of cold air as the door was pushed open. In walked an affable and portly gentleman sporting a flowing beard, a red hat covering his head, and clad in a matching tunic and breeches – it was Santa Claus in person at a time when one least expected him!
"My friends from India, I welcome you! It's nor Christmas but since you've come so far, I've brought Christmas to you," he declared in a booming baritone, as he pointed to an enormous book he carried.
"In this book, I have written down everything I know about you. I know the kind of gifts you want for Christmas but I am saving those when you visit us again in December. But I do have something for you to remember me by," Santa chuckled as he chose to pick out the two shortest individuals from the group to serve as his elves and bring out the goodies from his transport.
As a prelude to that, he regaled us with the legend of the "true" merry gentleman, who lives in the Santa Claus Village near Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle in Finland's northern Lapland region.
"Well, you have heard stories that Santa Claus perhaps lives in Greenland but I can tell you that he lives in Rovaniemi," our lunchtime visitor maintained – but more on this later.
The "elves" trooped in and Santa Claus proceeded to give out the goodies – a jar of cloudberry jelly and a beautiful coffee table book by photographer Hannu Hautala on the breathtaking Kuusamo region of Finland, just south of the Arctic Circle, of which this Ruka ski resort is the fulcrum.
Ruka is located some 800 km north of Finnish capital Helsinki.
Just how rare the visit was can be gauged from the fact that there is only one place in Finland where you can get to meet Santa Claus – and that too, the year around.
You guessed it right – it's at Rovaniemi.
So, was "our" Santa the Rovaniemi Santa?
"Don't ask me my name, don't ask me where I come from. I only came here to enhance your experience," he maintained.
Indeed, what else could one ask for?
Now let's get back to Rovaniemi.
"As early as the 1950s, Santa would enjoy coming to the Arctic Circle near Rovaniemi, not only on Christmas but throughout the year, to visit both children and child-like," explained Tuija Sulkinoja, who is responsible for marketing the Kuusamo region as a tourist destination.
"By 1985, his visits had become so regular that he founded his own village there. Santa Claus comes to the village every day of the year to listen to children's wishes and to talk to people from all over the world," Sulkinoja added.
A visit to the village is quite an ethereal experience, even though we couldn't meet him as he had closed shop for the day – that's how serious Finns are about sticking to schedule.
A Christmas atmosphere prevails as one enters an enormous log hut that is home to a large number of retail outlets selling Santa fare. Christmas carols resonate in the air.
Shoppers can take their pick from a mind-boggling array of goods ranking from Christmas tree decorations, to jewellery, to soft toys, to objects de art, to jackets and clothing, and books and magazine – all on the Santa theme.
As you step out onto the huge yard behind, there is the Santa Claus Office and the Santa Claus Main Post Office from where you can book greeting cards that will be delivered with Santa's signature just before Christmas, as also a reindeer park.
If this story has whetted your appetite, do visit www.santatelevision.com for more.
(Vishnu Makhijani can be contacted at [email protected])