ROVANIEMI, Finland -- It all started in Asia Minor, now Turkey. A good-hearted bishop named Nicholas, the legend goes, saved poor girls from prostitution by throwing bags of gold coins through their windows and down a chimney.
Over the next 1,700 years, with a little help from Dutch settlers in North America and poet Clement Clarke Moore, St. Nicholas became a merry old gent with a white beard and red suit who spends most of Christmas giving heaps of toys to good little girls and boys.
Today, any child can see Santa by taking a short ride to the local shopping mall, from Tokyo to Towson.
But only a few are able to fly to this city in Lapland to visit a Santa who the Finnish say is the prime heir to the Santa Claus legend.
The Finns have given their Lapland Santa his own amusement park, SantaPark, which opened last month inside a mountain just south of the Arctic Circle. (Its operators say no tax money was wasted on the park, which is partly financed with public funds, because it doubles as a nuclear fallout shelter for residents.)
Here in Rovaniemi, parents can indulge their children with the chance to sit in Santa's lap year-round.
With daytime temperatures often 20 below zero, it's "too damn cold," says Ari, one of Santa's elves.
And it can be expensive to get to SantaPark -- thousands of dollars from the United States. But once at the park, visitors are transported into a pristine winter landscape where the snow looks as if it has been hand-sprayed onto each conifer.
They see reindeer pulling sleds. They see huskies pulling sleds. They see people dressed as elves. They see a carousel ride inside a mountain. And they see Santa in the traditional costume save his Lapland-style fur boots.
Visitors also see Christmastime commercialism.
To capitalize on their $18 million investment, SantaPark's operators are also promoting the area as a "Christmas triangle."
In addition to the park, there is Rovaniemi Airport, where charter flights and Finnair jets with Santa's face painted on their fuselages are greeted by caroling children and workers dressed as furry animals.
And there is Santa Village, which includes a house for visits to Santa, a Santa post office and a Christmas shopping strip, all of which sprang up around a wooden hut built to honor the 1950 Arctic Circle visit of Eleanor Roosevelt.
Across from a gas station and the Arctic Circle Cafe, on a busy road with log trucks whizzing past, Santa Village visitors find that the only way to escape the face-numbing cold is to dart into 27 shopping outlets selling goods mostly geared to reindeer, including $60 reindeer rugs and $10 plastic Santa dolls dressed in reindeer fur.
Santa sits on a throne adjacent to a travel office that arranges sleigh rides. He is not much different from the Santas in U.S. malls. Waiting children and parents can hear what each child sitting on his knee wishes for. Then parents are asked whether they want a $13 memorial snapshot; private picture-taking is not allowed.
The new underground SantaPark amusement park is a 10-minute bus ride from Santa Village. The admission price is steep -- $13 for children and $20 for adults -- but most people who visit Santa Village also go to SantaPark. With the temperature often below zero and with as little as four hours of sunlight a day, there isn't much else to do.
Robert and Paula Carville, their 3-year-old son, Scott, his grandparents Janice and Ken McIntyre and two small cousins paid $500 apiece to fly in from Glasgow for a one-day visit. Asked how they liked it, Robert Carville said, "It's cold."
The family members were resting in the SantaPark snack shop, where Santa's "official drink," spring water, costs $3. They had trudged down the long, dim, eerie tunnel leading 150 feet into the center of Syvasenvaara Mountain, where the carousel has seats pulled by carved reindeer and a Santa Claus-face clock on top.
While loudspeakers played Christmas carols, the family visited SantaPark's few other attractions: a Magic Sleigh Ride carrying ZTC riders past automated elves in a Santa's workshop; a child-size roller coaster; a pedal-driven helicopter traversing the park's circumference; and small theater presenting a slide show.
Because the park is near a Finnish air base, about one-third of SantaPark's cost was underwritten by local taxes. Under Finnish law, communities near military installations must have bomb shelters built for them. Usually, the shelters double as parking garages or sports centers.
SantaPark, says Jukka Vahtera, its manager, is apparently the ,, only underground Christmas theme park in the world, "and I've been in this business 11 years."
Finnish tourism officials say SantaPark "will strengthen Finland's position as the homeland of Santa Claus, and Santa Claus of Finland will indeed rise in status."
The post office in Santa Village receives more letters to Santa -- 700,000 a year -- than any other post office in Europe, but the competition is intense.