We had always wished to spend Christmas in some foreign land in order to see how this event is celebrated in other countries. Ideally this place had to be similar to the ones that we saw on Christmas cards; that is with wooden log cabins, fire-places and much much snow.
Eventually, a brilliant idea came to our mind! What if we went to visit Santa’s land itself in Lapland, Northern Finland?
Although many of us have grown up to believe that Father Christmas is just a legend, my daughter and I are sure that he is real. Well, he comes to visit us each year and he always leaves a lovely present for Martina. So surely, after ten annual visits to our home, we decided that it would be nice of us to exchange the courteousy.
That was how we found ourselves at Gatwick airport being led away from the usual crowded queues by a special officer who rang a bell in order to call for those whose destination was Ivalo airport.
Soon, several families with excited children joined the group and off we went on a charter airplane which was waiting to take us to this magical land. Everything was superb from the start, even this flight which was completely dedicated to entertain the children with enjoyable games. Then, when we were approaching land, all the children turned to the airplane’s window in order to watch for Santa’s flying sleigh. We did not succeed to see it but deep beneath the fluffy white clouds, there appeared a strange landscape of dark land, remarkably patterned with plentiful shiny rivers and lakes. So that was how the Arctic Circle looked!
Our airplane landed smoothly down at Ivalo’s minute airport in Lapland, North Finland and soon we found ourselves walking in the crunchy snow. Mischievous, brightly dressed elves slid out together with our luggage and greeted us with playful tricks, whilst a traditionally dressed Finnish Sami, who forms part of the indigenous people of this area, welcomed us to his land in the company of a large reindeer. A coach transferred us to the tourist resort in Saariselkä which was only 25 minutes away.
Since in Saariselkä, the temperature goes down well beyond zero degrees, we had to pack a couple of cosy clothes in our luggage. However, on arrival, everyone was provided with a complimentary thermal outer-suit, along with woolen socks, snow boots, outer gloves and hats, in order to guarantee a comfortable stay since there the temperature could go down to -30 degrees celcius.
There is a good choice of hotels wherein to spend this holiday: starting from Santa’s Kieppi which is built in the traditional Finnish style, and moving on to the modern style Santa’s Holiday Club which includes an indoor pool with waves and chutes. We chose to stay in Hotel Kieppi because we considered it to be more authentic. Its owner, Matti Välitalo, informed us that in Finnish, the word ‘kieppi’ referred to the burrow where animals hibernated during winter, and surely this place was warm and snug contrasting to the icy coldness outside.
Between the beginning of December and the first days of January, Saariselkä experiences the polar night as the sun does not rise. However the place does not lie in total darkness since the light of the moon, the stars, and the magnificent Northern Lights are reflected by the snow, and therefore one can move around easily at whatever time. During this period, at about ten in the morning, the dusky blue sky turns into an unusual blend of silver and blue colours which is later imbued with different hues of blue and red, until at about three in the afternoon, when it starts getting dark again. This entire ambience felt strange at first but once we got used to it, it enhanced each and every moment and turned it into a unique Christmas experience. We really felt as if we had stepped into another world.
Even the activities that we could do were extraordinary and it didn’t take very long to see the adults being transformed into joyful and happy children. It’s bound to be! For how can one resist the feeling of a true white Christmas whilst squishing or toboganning in the milky Arctic snow? We were provided with free toboganns from our hotel and Martina took the opportunity to be pulled all along the way. I have to admit that it was somewhat frightening at first because we had never experienced this sport. But when we saw very young children shooting down confidently, we walked up the small snowy hill and off we went. Oh my! It felt like flying! An amazing experience! Anyhow, we lost count how much rides we did.
Each time we travelled by coach, our guides made their utmost in order to help us feel the Christmas spirit. Once more, we found the atmosphere quite captivating as we sang heartily a couple of old Christmas songs along with people coming from various countries around the world, under a sky packed with twinkling stars.
However surely, the best moment of this holiday for each visitor, whether adult or young was the special visit to the village of Father Christmas in the Arctic Circle. Here, with activities ranging from ice fishing, toboganning, reindeer sleigh rides, snow hockey, skidoo rides, and an igloo bar, who can wish for more? Yet there was more! In fact, after providing us with the required instructions, we were offered to drive a pack of huskies in the snow. My husband controlled the huskies and my daughter and I huddled up in the sleigh wrapped up in reindeer skin. What a delight!
Still, more followed since each family, at some point or another, was secretly and quickly hurried upon a snowmobile-sled in order to search for the elves who knew how to point the way to Santa’s log cabin which was craftily hidden in the icy woods. It was a really enthralling experience to enter into the warmth of Santa’s magical hut and to find him sitting in his huge wooden chair amid a multitude of colourful presents. Martina was dumbfounded as she noticed that Santa was holding and reading her own hand-written letter which she had sent him some days ago by post from Valletta! When she found some courage, she told him that many of her friends told her that he did not exist.
“Well now you have seen that I do!” he told her warmly as he laughed heartily and gave her a beautiful teddy bear. Martina hugged Santa as if to check that she was not dreaming and she even kissed him on the cheek. Once our private meeting with Santa was over, we were taken back to the rest of the group but Martina was simply entranced by this experience.
On Christmas day, we attended a gala dinner where we discovered that in Finland, ham is the Christmas food specialty. However we were treated to a bountiful meal of different meats and fish, together with a selection of pastries and delicious wild berries.
We surely missed the company of our dear family members and the sweet presence of baby Jesus in his crib which was nowhere in sight in these locations. Yet in Saariselkä everything was designed to entertain visitors and one will absolutely not have time to feel a trace of sadness.
We spent only four days in Santa’s Lapland but the surrealism of the place mystified the aspect of time and we felt as if we belonged there. Surely no other Christmas will ever match this one.
(This article was published in the Travel Supplement of The Sunday Times of Malta dated 2nd November 2014)