Have a jolly good time in Finland shopping, soaking up culture

SANTA'S NORTH POLE

December 20, 1992|By Joe Scholnick | Joe Scholnick,Contributing Writer

ROVANIEMI, FINLAND — Rovaniemi, Finland--It's about as close as you can realistically get to the North Pole, and this is where Santa Claus lives -- at least, the Finnish version of the red-clad, bearded jolly gentleman -- with his elves and lots of reindeer.

It's 10:30 on a mid-December morning when we set out for Santa Claus Village. In the "normal" world, the sun is high in the sky, the darkness of night long gone. But not here, in this frigid city of 30,000, straddling the Arctic Circle.

At midmorning, the gloom of night still cloaks the area. The cloudless sky is a deep indigo, not quite black. The faint eerie brightness is magnified by the thick blanket of snow covering the city and surrounding fields as far as the eye can see.

When the sun finally makes an appearance, it does so reluctantly. First, a sliver. Then just the upper part of a red disk.

For about three hours, it hovers, never more than a crimson quarter circle on the horizon. Then, with an almost audible sigh, it slowly sinks from sight. The sky grows ever darker, fading to black by 2:30 p.m.

Even with the sun up, the gloom of the half-light is punctuated by the glow of street lights forming yellow puddles in the snow. The residents of the city, bundled against the frigid temperature, rush to work or briskly walk from store to store as they shop.

"Come," says Airi Kulmanen, the Finnish guide who wants to take us to Santa Claus Village, above the Arctic Circle. "It's just a short walk to the ski-doos."

In the frigid temperature of the area, about 30 below zero or so, preparations are essential for a ride on a snowmobile. Two pairs of socks and fur-lined boots. A massive, insulated, hooded, fireman-red jumpsuit. Two pairs of wool gloves under fur-lined mittens. A wool scarf, a stocking cap and a pair of goggles. All is cheerfully fitted by the Lapland Safaris staff who operate the "safari ski-doo" service.

"Before we visit Santa Claus Village," says Ms. Kulmanen, "we're going to ski-doo to Santa's Reindeer Farm."

Driving the snowmobile is simple. There's very little traffic to worry about atop the broad expanse of the solidly frozen Lainas River to the reindeer farm. But the ride gets increasingly uncomfortable for those not acclimated, even beneath the weighty piles of insulation, to the bone-chilling, mind-numbing cold. Ms. Kulmanen, who was reared here, doesn't seem bothered by the temperature.

Despite the chill, the farm is crowded with visitors. Several hundred reindeer are scattered about in wooden pens. Others, hitched to sleighs, provide rides to giggling youngsters.

A quick search for Rudolf the Red-Nose is in vain. He is not part of the folklore of the Lapps, the nomadic people who populate the northern Arctic reaches of Finland as well as neighboring Sweden and Norway.

But Santa Claus himself is there, surrounded by a crowd of children and their parents. He happily poses for photographers with his reindeer. A few of the visitors try to earn their reindeer driver's license on sleighs.

A steaming bowl of reindeer stew, served in a typical Lapp round hut with a roaring fire, is welcome for its warmth and, surprisingly delicate, flavorful taste. The stew, as well as hot coffee and tea, is served by Lapps, dressed in bright, colorful native costumes.

From the farm, we travel to Santa's Village by car, thankful for an effective heater. Roads are swept clean, but there is a 2-inch layer of ice left on the surface to provide traction for the steel studs embedded in all vehicle tires.

The village, completed about six years ago, is a complex of interconnected two-story wooden structures, containing more than two dozen shops; a post office; a UNICEF children's play area; offices; and the North Pole Gallery, a small museum of the Arctic. It's about five miles north of Rovaniemi, well above the Arctic Circle.

The Lapp culture is predominant in the merchandise sold in the shops. You can find typical Lapp cloth and leather shoes and boots, the toes turned up like the boots Santa's elves wear.

Stuffed Lapland animal dolls and toys, fashioned into reindeer, kittens and other forms, are at the Riitan Verstas store. Lapp delicacies -- such as fresh, smoked and dried reindeer meat; cloudberries; and reindeer skins and antlers -- are found in the Lapin Herkku shop. Lauri Products has handcrafted items made from antlers, goat willow root and curly birch. Miessi is a workshop for gold and silverware and lapidary work, using regional gem stones.

Tapio Tammisto produces traditional Lapp silver jewelry, as well as items fashioned from gold nuggets panned from the rivers of Lapland. Still other shops offer Finnish ceramics; furs; colorful Lapp clothing, such as caps, scarves and jackets; and souvenirs.

Packaging and mailing services are available, all bearing the Santa Claus Village postmark affixed by the post office station in the complex. Christmas cards with that postmark are popular too.

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