How Santa changed my life

I was never a fan of Christmas. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a household full of love and festivities during the holiday season – a steady stream of family, friends and neighbours gathering over for food and drink, mixed with traditional choir carolling at church. I just never understood the consumerism, this idea of having to buy gifts for people because it’s Christmas.

From a very young age, I decided that December 25th would be more rewarding volunteering at nursing homes, soup kitchens, a suicide hotline … anything to focus on something other than gifts.

My bah-humbug came to end in 2008 when I was invited to interview Santa at his workshop in Lapland. At the end of November that year, I flew to Helsinki and then, along with a plane full of tiny tots in Santa hats, took the 90-minute flight to Rovaniemi to be there for the official opening of Christmas Village.

Standing in the middle of a crowd (remember those?), I was surrounded by hundreds of screaming children, many perched on their parents’ shoulders, excitedly waiting for the real Santa Claus to come onto the stage as a lightshow and carols on the loudspeakers entertained. And then, the Jolly Man in Red appeared to deafening cheers. I didn’t get it.

The next day, questions in hand, I went to interview Santa. An Elf gave me a press vest to put on before being escorted up to his office. The winding walkway is lined with photos of Santa with politicians, comedians and actors – all of them beaming with joy.

I sat, nonchalantly, next to Santa’s throne and waited. And then a giant of a man appeared – magnificently, majestically and merrily. I remained unaffected, asking him my first question. He looked at me, with a twinkle in his eye and he didn’t answer my question but talked about Mrs Claus and downhill skiing. And as he spoke, something magical transpired. I began to feel hope – that pure non-jaded hope of a child that anything was possible if I believed in it enough.

By the time my visit with Santa ended, I was a giddy kid. I literally ran down to his post office and sent dozens of letters on behalf of friends and family. I jumped on a sleigh ride as reindeer pulled me across the Article Circle (it runs through Santa Claus Village). Huge flakes of snow fell upon me and I whispered out loud, “I believe! I believe.”

When I flew back to Nice, I bought a ticket to Toronto for December 25 to surprise my family by showing up for Christmas dinner. I hadn’t spent Christmas with them in over a decade and the time together was so extraordinary I was convinced that I could carry on the hopeful spirit to make anything possible in the New Year.

In 2009, I reconnected with the love of my life whose proposal I turned down in 1992 because I was too young. In 2009, I said yes. A fellow lover of all things Christmas, we married on December 24 the following year.  Every year, we begin to listen to all-Christmas radio on November 1 and dance around the kitchen. It has nothing to do with gifts.

Even this year, as Covid continues to try and bring us to our knees, the past few days have reminded me that nothing, not even an epidemic, can take away our hope and kindness at Christmas. And in that spirit, I want to say thank you to everyone who has taken the time to reach out this year, with supportive and encouraging comments, especially when delivering the news during coronavirus is not done with joy.

So Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Santa & Covid

Sanna Kärkkäinen, managing director at Christmas Village in Rovaniemi, tells me that this year there are health measures in place to ensure safety to visitors, Elves and staff working at Santa’s Village and Santa’s Office.

This includes Santa, too,. “Santa is sitting behind Plexiglas and so not wearing a mask but all visitors are advised to wear a mask in the Office and Village,” says Sanna. “The playful Elves show a good example of this.”

Sanna says Covid is impacting tourism in Lapland. “We estimate a loss of around €700 million in tourism revenue with 5000 less people working in Lapland.” (These figures are for the period covering mid-March 2020-mid-March 2021).

“Even though this is dramatic time for local livelihoods, up here in the Arctic we look positively towards this winter,” Sanna shares. “We may be able to still welcome individual travellers to enjoy a beautiful and snowy winter season when the travel restrictions ease – and hopefully, in the end, the Covid-19 vaccination will save tourism.”