I met Santa in October, 2014, while doing a story for N by Norwegian magazine on the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in northern Finland. I was with photographer Tim White.
When you interview Santa as an adult, things get surreal quite quickly. With his sing-song, Finnish-accented voice, Santa tells us that Mrs Claus is on holiday in the Maldives, shopping, but he can’t remember when she’s due home.
This is a problem because Mrs Claus is a good cook, and in her absence Santa has mostly been eating pizza (he likes double cheese and salami) and drinking coffee, neither of which have helped with his insomnia. Still, he has a new hobby, which he does at 3am most mornings – Zumba. “Oh yes, I bought the DVD —it’s very cool,” he says.
We’re in Santa’s Home, a little red chalet across a stream in a corner of the Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finnish Lapland, which is most famous for its glass igloos, in which you can lie under a zebra-print bedspread and watch the Northern Lights overhead.
Before owner Jussi Eiramo opened a little restaurant here in 1974, Kakslauttanen consisted of two reindeer meat storage units for the the nomadic Sami herders who roamed the area. But, after stopping here after a fishing trip in the wilderness, Eiramo had a vision. He began serving reindeer stews from a little roadside teepee to travellers driving up the desolate Arctic Sea Road to Norway’s North Cape.
The resort has grown every year since, and today it’s Arctic tourism gone turbo-charged, especially around Christmas. There’s an ice chapel, a reindeer racing track, the world’s largest smoke sauna and the world’s largest log cabin restaurant.
Over 99 per cent of the visitors are from outside Scandinavia, with 40 per cent from Asia, after an assiduous marketing drive playing up to superstitions about the Northern Lights (in Japanese culture, for example, a child born under the Lights will be blessed with good lucks, intellect and fortune). Almost everyone who gets off our plane at the tiny Ivalo airport gets straight on the bus to this somewhat Disney-fied version of the Arctic, or “paradise with a sauna,” as Eiramo puts it.
Eiramo, says one colleague, “is a bit like Steve Jobs. He doesn’t stop, and every decision here goes through him.” He doesn’t look much like Steve Jobs, though, with his lumberjack shirt and fur trapper’s hat. His white beard and deep laugh suggest he could also double as Santa if he really wanted to, though he vigorously insists he doesn’t.
Either way, back at Santa’s House, this Santa Claus has been very well-briefed, even if we suspect he’s been dragged out for our benefit (it’s an unseasonally warm October, and the snow is sludgy rather than crispy). But wherever he’s been dragged from, Santa does a consummate job, not giving the slightest hint of dropping character.
His get-out for many of my more probing questions is that he’s more than 800 years old, though he can’t remember exactly. There are quite a few things he can’t remember, apparently, and he’s very hazy on the finer details of the mass delivery involved around Christmas time. “The elves handle most of that,” he says, airily.
We spend around half an hour in Santa’s home, which—like everything at the resort—is almost entirely hand-made on-site using Finnish logs, from the chalet itself to the wooden furniture. There are wooden cars and rocking horses around the place, and a slightly creepy baby doll in a pram. At the back there’s a little bedroom, where visitors can sleep, and where Santa poses for Tim the photographer in one of the stranger moments of our visit.
So, what does Santa do all day? “Well, I get more than 5,000 letters a day and I have to read them all,” he sighs. And how does he know if children have been naughty or nice? “Well, if they’re naughty, my elves will tell me, but you know, all children are nice, really.”
Kids used to want wooden cars, now every second letter they want an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy
Still, tastes are changing. “They used to want wooden cars, now every second letter they want an iPad or a Samsung Galaxy,” he says. Santa is something of a Luddite, it seems (his one attempt at writing an email was a “catastrophe”, he says)—but luckily his elves can make anything, using local gold and magic powder. Even iPads? “Yes, it’s magic.”
The elves, alas, aren’t working yet—Santa can’t remember where they live when they’re not working with him, but when they’re here they make gifts at the Celebration House, Kakslauttanen’s events space, which is festooned with lights and is apparently Finland’s largest log building.
But if the elves can make iPads using alchemy, Santa has his own brand of magic (which he can’t tell us about), which allows him to be at grottoes around the world simultaneously. Tim mentions the time he met Santa at an Essex department store in the 1970s. “Oh yes, I remember,” says Santa, without missing a beat. “You wanted a camera.”
Merry Christmas, everyone.