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Santa Reigns in Finnish Lapland

December 21, 1986|JENNIFER MERIN | Merin is a New York City free-lance writer.

ROVANIEMI, Finland — Yes, Virginia, and everyone else, there is a Santa Claus Land. And although it might sound like a tourist trap, it's really a delightful enclave of year-round Christmas spirit in the heart of Finnish Lapland. The capital is Joulupukin (Santa Claus) Pajakyla (Village), right on the Arctic Circle.

About two years ago the governor of Lapland proclaimed this vast unspoiled (and fortunately unaffected by the Chernobyl disaster) haven for naturalists and people who love sports, as the domain of St. Nick.

According to Finnish legend, Santa Claus lives at Korvatunturi, in the wilderness near the Soviet border. But that's too remote, so Santa Claus Village was built just two miles north of Rovaniemi, the capital and commercial center of Lapland. The site is where Eleanor Roosevelt was taken when she asked to visit the Arctic Circle. The log cabin built to accommodate her has been incorporated into the village.

You can get to Santa Claus Village by public bus from the Rovaniemi town center for about $1 in about 10 minutes.

Finnish Modern

You might expect Santa Claus Village to be quaint and old-fashioned, with gingerbread houses and gaslight. But the Lapland version is Finnish modern, and acclimatized to be warm in winter and cool in summer.

The main building, designed by the Arrak Group of architects and inaugurated in June, 1985, is a handsome wooden structure with two levels of workshops, exhibition and activity rooms, boutiques and an all-important post office, all centered around a lobby. A large fir tree is always decorated, even in summer months when Lapland's days are long and the weather is balmy.

Santa Claus is usually there, too. But visitors in summer are advised to phone first--the village is open daily, but Santa may have gone fishin' on one of Lapland's well-stocked lakes.

The building's activity rooms often house creative workshops for children, who can paint pictures about Santa Claus or anything else, or write letters to be sent to family or friends at home, complete with the Santa Claus postmark.

All Letters Answered

In 1985 about 170,000 children from around the world (including about 5,500 American kids) took pen, pencil or crayon in hand to write to Santa at Arctic Circle 96930, Rovaniemi, Finland. Those letters (many of them mostly lists) were all answered. Santa hires extra personnel to handle the volumes of mail, and some of them wear elf-like uniforms.

From that same post office you can mail some wonderful gifts, all sold in Santa Claus Village shops. There are lots of playthings. The wooden pull toys include rabbits with wiggling ears ($12), cats whose heads turn from side to side ($10) as if they were looking for the toy mice ($6) that look a bit like very miniature wooden Volkswagens with leather tails.

There are little autos ($12), locomotives with hook-up cars ($7-$20), airplanes ($12) and boats ($3). These, plus assorted rattles, puzzles, boxes and blocks are handmade here. The same company makes darling Raggedy Ann and Andy-like dolls with yellow hair and pudgy bald baby dolls.

Rag dolls and cuddly stuffed animals, including an unusual assortment of Arctic species such as reindeer, some with Rudolph-red noses, are made in Santa's workshop nearby at Ranua Animal Park, where live animals are also kept. (Ranua Park is another Santa Claus Land attraction, about 20 miles south of Rovaniemi, and also reachable by public bus.) The unusual stuffed animals are from small to almost monumental size, priced $15 and up.

Handmade Lapp Boots

Other boutiques contain wearables, including unusual handmade Lapp ankle or knee-high boots of natural leather that darkens with age. The boots are comfortable, and have a somewhat exotic design (the toe comes to an upturned point, the seams are decorated with Viking designs burned into the leather). They are warm, sturdy, sized for men, women and children. Adult sizes cost about $175.

Pentik Co., manufacturer of fine leather goods and ceramics, has a shop in Santa Claus Village. Its supply of gift items ranges from supple leather coats ($800 and up), jackets ($300 and up) and handbags ($90 and up) to table settings of creamy white faience, complete with serving bowls, coffee pot and platters large enough to serve a family-size Christmas goose or turkey. There are also lovely modern vases and candle holders.

Other shops contain colorful hand-knit sweaters, warm enough for winter in Finland or the Rockies, and hand-woven shawls, scarfs and blankets, and some fur coats and hats.

The handmade jewelry is lovely, too. There are snow grouse pendants ($60 and up) made of silver, with a white stone for one wing and a red stone for the other to symbolize the seasonal feather changes.

Spectralite Jewelry

The special blue-black spectralite, mined locally, is handsomely combined with silver or gold in modern pendants or bracelets, earrings or tie clips. Silver jewelry with traditional Viking designs is also sold.

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