Rovaniemi, Lapland, northern Finland. Santa Claus shuffles out from the fire exit of his grotto, walks towards monocle’s small Skoda hire car and squeezes himself – beard, belly and boots – into the passenger seat.
“This is a little strange,” I say.
“I get that a lot,” Santa replies.
Let us, for a moment, just for this one page, suspend our disbelief. It will make things easier, I promise. This Santa, it should be pointed out, is the real Santa. Swedes, Norwegians and Danes may disagree – actually, they will disagree, vociferously – but Santa is associated with nowhere as much as Lapland.
There is very little in Rovaniemi that does not appear to be connected with Santa and the season of goodwill. His image is plastered across the airport, where posters proclaim it to be the “official airport of Santa Claus”. Hotels and restaurants are named after him.
There is even Santa Hair & Beauty, although it is unclear whether it does a special deal for beards. The only venue in Rovaniemi that does not appear to be Santa-themed is the Kitty-Cat, the lap-dancing club. Having said that, monocle did not enter the lap-dancing club so who knows?
We drive to the reindeer farm, a few kilometres farther north. A Skoda isn’t Santa’s normal ride but given the mild weather it is a bit more practical. “When it comes to winter and deep snow, nothing beats reindeer,” he says as we walk down the hill towards the forest. A group of seven reindeer gallop towards us out of the trees, called by Santa banging a bucket of food against the fence.
None of them has a red nose, I note. “Well it’s not Christmas Eve yet, is it?” Santa replies. As Santa feeds the reindeer we skirt around the difficult conversation about what Santa himself eats. This is, after all, a town where everyone appears to eat his preferred mode of transport.
While Santa is happy to show off his reindeer he is a little more coy about where he keeps all the presents. “I can’t show you all Santa’s secrets now, can I?” Nor, despite persistent questioning, is he willing to reveal whether certain individuals are on the naughty or nice list.
He will take us to the post office though. If a letter is addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole”, this is where it ends up. Piles of opened envelopes are stacked in boxes – monocle’s favourite is one from Singapore with the address “1 Reindeer Lane” scrawled in red crayon.
The post office also does a lively business in postcards sent from the “North Pole”. Thousands are sent every week, each with a special Santa-themed postmark, while it’s also possible to send postcards that won’t arrive until Christmas. A female worker at the post office – she giggles when asked if she’s an elf – says they expect to send 500,000 this Christmas.
The actual elves are nowhere to be seen. They work “somewhere else”, Santa says, treading a fine line between mystery and vagueness. At Santa’s House – it’s not a grotto, apparently – the two blonde 20-something women in cartoonish Christmas outfits greeting us at the door are probably best described as Santa’s Little Helpers.
They shepherd families into the living room where Santa sits on his big chair next to the flickering (electric) log fire. Once the child’s five minutes is up, the Helpers guide them out again. Along the way they show them the picture they’ve just taken and gently try the hard sell – €25 for one large picture, €49 for a special Santa usb.
This is, be in no doubt, a proper, thriving business. Santa Park was little more than a couple of huts 20 years ago; now there’s a post office, a series of cafés, gift shops, a bakery, a gallery, a bar and Santa’s House.
Santa may be very old – he is a bit vague about his exact date of birth too – but in the past two decades it is fair to say he has become a little more entrepreneurial. “There are always more people coming, so we needed more room,” he says. His house has been rebuilt and extended more than half a dozen times as the tourist numbers have increased. Santa may be Nordic by birth but he is truly global.
In the post office the letters are placed into pigeon holes depending on the nation they were sent from – the ones for Kyrgyzstan and Yemen both look fairly full.
“This is a very international place,” he says. “One day this summer I counted 44 different nationalities. The youngest one was three weeks old, and the oldest was 97.”
Today the youngest is four-year-old Igor from Murmansk. His family have driven the 580km for a week-long holiday, of which the visit to see Santa is the centrepiece. Igor is shy of strangers, turning his face into his mother’s legs at the sight of anyone he doesn’t know. Santa isn’t a stranger though.
Igor’s face lights up, he jumps onto Santa’s lap with glee and the smile is still stuck on his face 10 minutes later after his parents have politely declined the sales pitch from the Helpers and they are walking back to the car park. And why not? He’s just met Santa. It’s impossible not to smile, whatever your age.