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Invoking the Santa Claus on a Trip to Lapland

December 24, 1989|BOB O'SULLIVAN | O'Sullivan is a travel writer based in Canoga Park

Years ago, a little girl named Virginia wrote to a newspaper editor, asking if there really was a Santa Claus.

The editor replied that, "Yes, of course, there is a Santa Claus." But with no hard evidence, he took a philosophical approach in his answer.

Now it seems timely for an update, particularly since I'm just back from the Arctic Circle and new evidence. The fact is, my wife Joyce and I did indeed meet Santa Claus.

It happened during a tour of Scandinavia, which began in Finland. Because Helsinki was crowded, we booked a room at a hotel near the airport.

What looked like a hundred excited American teen-agers checked in right behind us. The woman desk clerk said they were a church group from Topeka, Kan.

She had just a trace of an accent and seemed glad for the chance to practice her English. We talked about our respective occupations and she asked, "Are you going up to Finnish Lapland to interview Santa Claus?"

"Well, frankly," I said, "I'd feel a little foolish. You see, I'm not sure I really believe in Santa Claus."

"But if you're not sure," she asked, "shouldn't you check it out? Isn't that what reporters do? It's easy; there are flights every day."

Well, we did fly up to Lapland to check it out, and the scenery on the way was marvelous.

We flew over some of Finland's 118,000 lakes and rich green forests reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest, with a little Kansas and New England landscape tossed in. There was beauty everywhere.

After settling into our hotel in Rovaniemi I asked where the tourist office was, admitting a little sheepishly that we wanted to interview Santa Claus. I waited for snickering but there was none.

Later, Kati Manners, the wife of a physician, picked us up in her car and told us that, well, she was "sort of one of his helpers."

She drove us to a village just above the Arctic Circle. Though the smiling man she introduced us to was friendly, had a warm personality and gave the impression that he'd known us for a long time, I have to admit that I was somewhat skeptical. When he excused himself for a phone call, I said to Kati, "He never said, 'Ho, ho, ho.' Not once."

"So who does?" Kati asked.

"And he certainly wasn't very fat."

"Fat!" Kati said. "Do you know how hard that man works and the hours he puts in?"

Joyce seemed disappointed to find the old boy wearing brown boots. "Everybody in Lapland," said Kati, "wears brown boots."

When Santa Claus returned from the telephone, we entered his office with a list of questions.

"Mr. Claus," I began, "how can you possibly get to so many children in just one night?"

There was a groan from the workers. "You'll have to forgive them," he said. "They hear that question a lot. The fact is, I have a great many helpers."

Then, smiling as if he knew he was going to say something funny, he patted his beard: "And you have to remember--the nights here are six months long." He laughed and so did everybody else.

I figured I had inadvertently hit on a standard Santa joke without knowing it.

It was the only question I was able to ask. A young lady in a red suit brought in several children. They were Polish.

Moments later he was talking to a group of German children, then to a French group, followed by a Japanese girl. He had no trouble being understood by any of them. My skepticism started to fade but I worked to keep it. Objectivity is a necessity for reporters.

When I asked one of the helpers if Santa ever had any language problems, the old man glanced over the head of the little girl on his knee.

"Once in a while," he said, "but we work it out, don't we?" The little girl laughed and nodded.

Santa seemed much too busy for an interview. So Kati took us to a wall covered with letters.

It was surprising how many of the writers asked for things like world peace and an end to world hunger.

We saw Santa again before we left. He was walking, with the aid of a stick, toward another building we took to be his home. He had a pronounced limp.

"Occupational problem," Kati said. "He calls it 'Santa's knee.' "

The next morning we went farther north in an open boat to visit a reindeer farm. A few miles upriver and a few hundred yards inland, our boatman introduced us to Matti Konttaniemi, a reindeer rancher.

He invited us into a small round log house with a sod roof. He was in traditional Finnish clothing. We shared a meal he cooked over an open fire, and talked about a lot of things.

We talked about Matti's two boys, Jarno and Seppo, and his wife Terttu. Then we talked about reindeer, of which Matti has 10,000. Ten had been trained to pull sleighs. He was quite proud that those 10 had been used by American television producers when they filmed their Christmas shows there.

Half joking, I asked if Santa had ever used his reindeer. Matti seemed to take the question seriously. He said he really didn't know because his herds roamed the woods in December and 10,000 was a big number to keep track of in the dark, but that the use of his animals without his knowledge was certainly possible.

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