Travel Dreams Advent Calendar, December 12: Finland

Today we head up north, directly to the home of Santa Claus, Finland. Did you know Santa lives in Finland? I thought he lived in North Pole, Alaska, or at least that's what I was told when I went there years ago. Someone is telling a fib and we know what Santa does to fibbers...Our Advent mission today is to unravel the mysteries of Santa Claus.Prepare to have your mind blown, because all of the things you know about Santa are about to make sense. I've already told you a bit about Saint Nicholas, who was not at all like Santa Claus. So how are they connected? Finland.Apparently there seems to be a consensus that Santa Claus lives in Finland, far up in Lapland. The exact spot he lives is in Korvatunturi, a meadow shaped like an ear, which they say is how he hears children's requests. What do you suppose is a typical type of wildlife in this particular corner of Europe? Reindeer. Finnish culture is long and old, with many pre-Christian elements including celebrations related to the solstice. The mythology comes from the Norse tradition. One of the most important gods in their folklore is Wodin (Odin), a god of many things including royalty and knowledge. He has a long, white beard, leather pants and coat trimmed with fur and a hat. He is the god associated with the Pagan festival of Yule, a midwinter festival. See where this is going?People in the past venerated Wodin around the time of the solstice celebrations or Yule. When Christianity arrived, the locals transformed their traditions by merging Wodin with a saint day that was proximate, Saint Nicholas.The result of this merging of religions produced the idea that Yule is synonymous with Christmas and Wodin became known as Joulupukki, or "goat man", a man transformed into a half goat on Christmas Eve.Joulupukki arrives every Christmas Eve and, rather sensibly, knocks on doors rather than sliding down a chimney. He politely asks if there are any good children at home and delivers gifts if there are. His sled is pulled by reindeer, just plain ones that don't fly because that doesn't make any sense.If you aren't convinced that Santa is Finnish yet, let's talk about the elves. I am pretty skeptical that the Arctic has a large population of small people. But Scandinavia is full of magical little elves and gnomes. The Finnish call the gnomes tonttu. The idea is that they are ancestral spirits that live in farmlands, acting as protectors. Tonttu are small sized people. They can be helpful but have feisty temperaments which can cause trouble. All Scandinavian cultures have similar creatures that are associated with Christmas, and they usually accompany Santa to assist in present distribution. Sometimes they bring a pig with them. Obviously.All of the piece are fitting together, no? Another piece of evidence. Our contemporary American picture of Santa Claus is largely driven by a certain image we can all conjure in our minds- the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. That famous image was painted by an artist called Haddon Sundblom who was....you guessed it, Finnish.So there you have it. Santa is Finnish. Don't take it from me, though. Ask a kid. Apparently, Finnish Santa receives hundreds of thousands of Santa letters every year from children all over the world. My very favorite children's Christmas TV show seems to agree, the darling Charlie and Lola who visit the elves in Finland. If you have kids in your life, you need to watch this, especially because it asks the immortal question of why there is no 25th on an Advent Calendar.If you happen this head to Finland in December, you can visit Santa. If it were me, though, I'd participate in the favorite Finnish Christmas tradition, taking a sauna. The city of Helsinki offers a free sauna in the city center every year. Go on the 26th and you may find, sitting next to you in the steam, a man with a long white beard who need a bit of relaxation. Helsinki, after all, is not so far from Lapland by sleigh.