Sunday 11 December 2022

Advent 3: A Home for Santa

Last Sunday we looked at the mystery surrounding the arrival of hundreds of letters to Santa Claus arriving at an address in New York. But we all know that Santa really lives at the North Pole. Or do we? Different countries have different ideas about where he lives. It reminds me of the long-running debate over where Robin Hood comes from – Nottinghamshire or Yorkshire.

The most widely accepted location for the home of Santa Claus, at least in Europe, is Finland. Actually, there are two, both in the most northerly province of Lapland that have been marketed as Santa’s official residence. But before that, a quick word about Santa’s name. In Finland the character which the English-speaking world has given the name Santa Claus doesn’t exist in Finland. In last year’s Advent series I expressed by belief that all the gift-bringing characters around the world should be recognised in their own right and not renamed or remodelled into the American Santa Claus. Santa Claus should not be the default name for these characters. They have their own name and have evolved differently with absolutely no connection to the USA. In Finland the Christmas gift-bringer is called Joulupukki, He evolved out of the traditional Yule Goat of Nordic tradition (more of that next Sunday). What we English call Santa’s Village is called Joulupukki’s Village in Finnish. There is a desire for diversity and recognition of identity in this world. I wish Europe would stop adopting US values and start to celebrate our own. It’s time we stopped the expansion of the US Empire before we lose our unique identities.

Unfortunately, Joulupukki’s Villlage is marketed on its website as Santa’s Village in English, so I reluctantly have to use the name Santa for the rest of this article.

The current principal Santa’s Village owes its existence to the rebuilding programme in Finland after World War II, and a specific desire by former First Lady of the USA, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962). There’s been discussion about Mrs. Roosevelt’s sexuality ever since it was first suggested in 1979 and that she could have been a lesbian or bisexual. It’s a discussion that can be gone into more detail at a later date. For today, let’s look at Eleanor’s link to Santa’s Village.

Hardly anywhere in Europe was not affected by World War II. Finland was no exception. It had to deal with threats from two sides – the Nazis from the south, and then from the Soviet Union from the east. In the end Finland joined the Allies. In the Lapland War of late 1944 the Nazis virtually destroyed the city of Rovaniemi. After the war the newly formed UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration decided to help rebuild Rovaniemi. Mrs. Roosevelt was a leading force within the Administration, and in 1950 she expressed a desire to visit the city to monitor the rebuilding progress. She also expressed a wish to cross the Arctic Circle.

The visit seems to have been arranged hastily, for the Governor of Lapland and the Mayor of Rovaniemi didn’t become aware of Eleanor’s visit until two weeks before her arrival. The two officials decided to have a new cabin built 100 metres south of the Arctic Circle for their distinguished guest to rest during her visit. The cabin was built within those two weeks.

The special visitor arrived on 11th June 1950. It was bright sunny day and the citizens of Rovaniemi turned out in force with a large civic party to welcome Eleanor Roosevelt. The visit was a huge success and the former First Lady got her wish to cross the Arctic Circle. To celebrate the event Eleanor sent a commemorative postcard to the then US President with a brand new Arctic Circle postmark.

Apart from helping to rebuild the city following the war Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit opened Rovaniemi’s eyes to the lucrative tourist trade. The cabin became the central attraction for thousands of visitors every year who wanted to emulate Eleanor’s trip across the Arctic Circle. Then they realised the potential of marketing the area as the home of Santa Claus/Joulupukki.

But Rovaniemi wasn’t the first Finnish location to claim to be the home of Santa. Back in 1927 a popular broadcaster called Markus Rautio said in one of his children’s radio programmes that Joulupukki (at that time the American Santa Claus hadn’t reached Finland) lived on Korvatunturi, a mountain and fell near the border with Russia. This soon became “traditional folklore”.

Meanwhile, as tourism to Rovaniemi increased so did the number of attractions. By the 1970s there was a whole new village around what is now called Roosevelt’s Cottage. By 1985 the village had become so popular that the Finnish tourist board decided to name it Joulupukki’s Village and promoted Juoulupukki as the same character as the western Santa Claus to attract more visitors.

Not to be outdone the Korvatunturi location began increasing its facilities and promotion. In 2000 they formed the Santa Claus Foundation to help disadvantaged children around the world with it headquarters in Korvatunturi. It still markets itself as a home of Joulupukki/Santa though concedes that Rovaniemi attracts the most visitors and markets itself as Santa’s workplace.

Today, both locations still receive thousands of visitors each year, and both receive letters addressed to Santa Claus and his many incarnations (St. Nicholas, Weihnachtsman, Père Noël, Father Christmas, etc.). The letters sent to Korvatunturi are forwarded to Rovaniemi where a larger operation of dealing with them has been developed, still with its own postmark.

Whether you believe in Santa Claus or any of his many other incarnations and counterparts or not, it can be said that without Eleanor Roosevelt’s desire to cross the Arctic Circle there may never have been so many people, young and old, who visit Santa’s home in Finland.

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