I remember marvelling as a child at the snowy scenes on the Christmas cards that hung limply in our Venetian blinds, all variations on the same theme: a jolly looking Santa rugged up against the icy cold of the North Pole, a sleigh laden with gifts, reindeers at the ready.
It was a stark contrast to the Santa I met at our local department store in suburban Brisbane, sweating profusely yet remaining ever cheerful, taking children onto his knee while keeping a fan strategically placed and on full blast.
Many Christmases later, while lining up to meet Santa with my own three children, I day-dreamed about taking my family to the North Pole, to tick “white Christmas” off our bucket list, and to hopefully track down the “real” Santa.
Twelve months later, we found ourselves standing at Helsinki Central Train Station in Finland, clad in multiple layers of clothing, clutching suitcases bulging with many more layers of clothing, ready to board the “Santa Claus Express”.
Also known as the overnight train between Helsinki and Rovaniemi, a small city situated on the border of the Arctic Circle in northern Finland, it was the most exciting leg of our Christmas tour.
Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland, the northernmost region of Finland, and although it was almost completely destroyed during World War 2, this modern city has reinvented itself as the official home of Santa Claus, cleverly cashing in on Christmas tourism.
The double-decker Santa Claus Express that delivered us to Rovaniemi had bunk beds and private bathrooms, which made for a surprisingly comfortable 13-hour journey through the dark countryside of wintery Finland.
At seven AM, the train skidded to a halt and we caught our first glimpse of Rovaniemi, still shroud in darkness, with lamps illuminating the deep drifts of snow that had fallen overnight.
Our children burst out of the train, bags and belongings forgotten, and fell into the fresh snow, creating snow angels and getting wet and cold and giddy with excitement. I followed them, clicking photos before my phone turned itself off due to the extreme cold.
Finally, my husband emerged, dragging our suitcases through the thick snow and grumbling about the lack of assistance from the rest of the family, who were still knee deep in snow and quickly learning to form and throw snow balls.
It was then that I noticed the stillness; an almost other-worldly silence. Aside from the delighted shrieks of my children, and the humming of the train, not another sound could be heard. No birds were chirping. No cars passed by. No announcement came over the PA. The North Pole is an eerily silent place.
Christmas at Santa Claus Village, Rovaniemi, Finland
We’d travelled almost 15 000 kilometres from the other side of the world; we were a long way from home, but we had made it to the location depicted in my childhood Christmas cards. Now it was time to meet the jolly fat man himself!
It turns out that Santa can not only speak Finnish and English, but a number of other languages too; enabling him to greet his fans from all over the world in their native tongue.
We found him waiting at Santa Claus Village – a theme park set in a natural winter wonderland, just outside of the Rovaniemi township.
Upon arriving at the village, we trudged through the snow towards the main building (which also houses Santa’s Post Office) and joined the long queue of people waiting to meet Saint Nick.
After an hour and a half wait (yep – he’s a popular guy), we were admitted entry to his cavern where a suitably rotund and bespectacled Santa sat waiting expectantly on a red velvet throne, with world maps and an extensive library of books adorning the walls – no doubt running records of his “naughty and nice” lists.
He was genuinely surprised to hear we’d travelled so far to meet him and he chatted amiably to our kids about kangaroos and koalas. After asking them what they would like for Christmas, he presented them with a gift of thick, red woollen socks, and wished us a merry Christmas. A cheerful elf directed us towards the exit so the next group of restless children could have their long-awaited turn.
Outside it was bitingly cold, but a roaring fire warmed us while we waited our turn for a reindeer sleigh ride. Once ensconced in the sleigh, we bumped our way through the forest, the reindeers needing no directions, clearly having travelled this circuit many times before.
As we moved further away from the chatter around the fire and the squeals of children making snowmen, we were enveloped once again by the sound of silence, saving for the gentle jingling of the reindeer’s bells and the scratching of the snow laden pine tree branches brushing past us.
It’s fair to say that the kids weren’t the only ones who were wide-eyed in wonder.
Christmas in Australia
This year we’ll spend our Christmas at home, in and out of the pool, feasting on prawns, limp salads and sweating cheeses with paper party hats stuck to our foreheads. Candles will curl over, defeated, as the temperatures soar and the kookaburras noisily cackle their Christmas greetings to one another.
And when we crack the bon bons and ask the inevitably corny jokes: (Q. What do they sing at a snowman’s birthday? A. Freeze he’s a jolly good fellow), we will laugh and talk about the snowman that we clumsily built together in the Finnish forest and then abandoned because our hands were so bitterly cold, and how we regained feeling in our fingers thanks to an overpriced hot chocolate in Santa’s cafeteria. And we will all agree that it doesn’t feel real – that it must have been a dream – a beautiful, magical dream…
Emirates flies daily from Australia to Dubai, and then Finn Air will take you to Finland’s capital, Helsinki. From there, you can fly to Rovaniemi or catch the overnight train (Santa Claus Express).
Where to stay
We stayed in a hotel within the town centre of Rovaniemi, which was walking distance to shops and restaurants, but you can also stay in Santa Claus Village itself, or even in an igloo!
Things to do
In addition to visiting Santa Claus Village, you can easily spend a day at Santa Park (an indoor Christmas theme park), or take one of many tours, including northern lights spotting tours and snowmobile tours. There’s also a museum and art gallery which covers the fascinating local culture and history, and a beautiful church that conducts Christmas services. Ranua Wildlife Park is also a popular tourist attraction, featuring artic animals like polar bears, moose and arctic foxes.