In 1996 we were really lucky to score a house swap in both Gloucester, UK and Stockholm, Sweden. These opened the door to a 10 week overseas holiday with our young children and the best holiday ever – Finland at Christmas.
We stayed in the house in Stockholm for a couple of days before heading north to Finland. (Living in Stockholm in winter – another great story.) The house had a decorated Christmas tree erected and, as the last to leave, I snuck a few presents under the tree.
We caught the overnight ferry from Stockholm to Finland and then a daytime train to Rovaniemi. On the ferry I had noticed that all the children were permanently dressed in their ski suits and boots, so once we landed I followed their example. What a wise decision. No stress when the kids wanted to walk down the street kicking and jumping into the piles of icy snow that accumulated on the sides of the roads. Not a problem to let them play when we found a playground where once they slid down the slide they just kept sliding across the snow. Best of fun!
Near Rovaniemi is Santa Claus’ village where you can meet the ‘real’ Santa Claus. What a magical place and, despite its potential for crass over-marketing it was really well done, uncrowded and not overly commercial. They had ‘elves’ supervising activity stations for the children, eg making wooden rabbits and icing gingerbread. All these activities were free. It might be different now though I sincerely hope not. We did, of course, pay to have a family photo with Santa.
Further north for Christmas, past the Arctic Circle, to Sodankylä. We ended up in a hotel with a French tour group and us – an interesting experience. The hotel package was all-inclusive, offering a variety of fun daily activities.
On the first day we climbed aboard a ‘sled-train’ pulled by a snow-mobile. I recommend sitting at the back if you want to avoid the smelly exhaust fumes. We travelled into the forest, the trees glistening with ice, and deep, pristine snow drifts. The aim of the trip was to fetch a Christmas tree for the hotel foyer. The staff were fabulous and allowed my son to also select a smaller, personal tree for his hotel room. He had such a great time, thigh deep in snow, chopping this tree down. I later made some paper chains and lanterns for decorations. My daughter (aged 6), on the other hand, was not so happy, as the moment she stepped out of the sled her boots filled with snow and her feet became extremely painful. She started to cry, which alarmed me no-end as I envisioned her crying ice-cubes and her eyelashes freezing together! So, I did what all good mothers would do: I sat in the sled, pulled off my boots and gave her my socks! All this in minus 14 degrees. Lesson learnt day 1: take spare socks for everyone. Lesson learnt day 2: take spare gloves for everyone!
Back at the hotel, the adults retreated whilst all the children, Aussie and French, decorated the tree and made gingerbread biscuits. This was the best ice-breaker ever (pardon the pun). Despite the language differences the children became bosom buddies. They played cards (Snap), hide’n’seek and my daughter and a French girl taught each other to count to 100 in their respective languages.
Other activities over the week included snow sports such as cross-country skiing, snow shoeing, snow mobile rides, tobogganing, ice fishing and a visit to a husky dog centre with the chance to drive a husky-pulled sled. So much fun and all in the most beautiful surroundings. The days were very short with the sun never rising above the tree levels and the temperatures plummeted as the week progressed. I went for a walk into the town at about 2:30 pm on Christmas Eve when the outside temperature was minus 28 degrees! The dark, and the constantly white landscape were quite disorienting and I had a brief moment of panic when I thought I had lost my way back to the hotel.
The main Christmas meal and celebration was on Christmas Eve. As we were eating we heard a distinct clopping noise in the foyer. Heading out to investigate we discovered Santa, accompanied by a real reindeer! My daughter was in seventh heaven. To her, at this age, all reindeers were Rudolf, and she lost no time in giving the poor animal a huge hug. She also delighted the rest of the guests by sitting on Santa’s lap singing “Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer”. Somewhere, all around France, there are video recordings of my daughter! My son was not so sure as he noticed, wisely, that the reindeer had really big, sharp antlers.
We had to be very careful not to mention to my daughter that we were eating reindeer which, by the way, was delicious.
Some time later my son (age 9) said: ” do you know how I know that the Santa at the hotel wasn’t the real Santa, but the Santa at Santa Claus’ village was?”
The obvious response was: ” no, how do you know?”
“Well,” he said, ” the Santa at the hotel could only speak Finnish but the other Santa spoke to us in English and can obviously speak to all the children in their own language. So he must be the real Santa.”
Incredulous, we attempted to keep straight faces as we replied: ” of course, that’s right.” Well who were we to say otherwise?!
We caught the overnight train back down to Turku to meet the ferry back to Stockholm. The French tourists had been amazed that we hadn’t flown from Stockholm to Rovaniemi, but despite being slower, our way was infinitely better. The children thought it was the greatest treat to get to sleep on a boat and a train – it was all part of the adventure.
When we arrived back at the house in Stockholm it had freshly snowed. There, leading straight up to the front door, were deer hoof prints and, lo and behold, presents were under the Christmas tree! Santa and Rudolf were definitely real and remained so for many years.
In case you were wondering; this is what the real Santa Claus looks like.