While Santa Claus may have cemented his place as the most famous resident of Lapland, he is by no means the most well-established or longest inhabitant of this barren yet beautiful part of the world.
That accolade belongs to an indigenous culture that may be shrinking but still retains its traditional ways of life and acts as a perfect counterpoint to the other, how shall we say, more imaginative stories associated with Lapland.
A trip to Lapland this Christmas will undoubtedly be a magical occasion filled with sleigh rides, mischief elves and of course jolly St Nicholas himself, but to get a complete picture of this enigmatic place that fuses imagination and fantasy with history and tradition, it’s important to understand the Sámi culture that has called this area home for more than 5,000 years.
An Old Cross-Border Culture
Considering members of the Sámi culture have inhabited areas of the northern arctic since before the Great Pyramids were built, it’s perhaps no surprise that today the Sámi people aren’t nicely contained within modern borders.
It’s estimated there are less than 100,000 Sámi remaining today, spread across northern Norway, Finland, Sweden and a small portion of Russia, which collectively once formed an area known as Sápmi.
Fall & Rise
Like many indigenous cultures around the world, the Sámi have long suffered discrimination and persecution. Christianity and modern nation-states often stood in opposition to the traditional Sámi way of life and through excessive hunting, taxation and sometimes outright repression, the Sámi culture suffered horribly for hundreds of years.
Progress has been slow but is gradually picking up pace. Indigenous rights have been established in some, but not all countries in which the Sámi inhabit, while there is now a Sámi parliament in all four countries dedicated to safeguarding Sámi interests.
Yet despite some real progress, it’s unclear what the future holds for the Sámi people. Environmental destruction, whether through expanded transportation or energy development, continues to harm the fragile way of life the Sámi continue to pursue. It is a fragile existence and one which is important to understand and experience.
The Reindeer Kings & Queens
Forget the man in the red suit, the undisputed Kings and Queens of the reindeer have long been the Sámi. While you’re in Lapland you will certainly see some of the estimated 200,000 reindeer that roam the area, all of which are legally owned by the Sámi people.
The Sámi’s connection with the reindeer goes back further than anybody can remember and they have long herded the ancestors of Rudolph, Dasher and Prancer. Once a semi-nomadic people who would roam the icy landscapes of Lapland with their beloved reindeer, the Sámi have gradually become more sedentary as their way of life has changed.
Reindeer continue to play a pivotal role for the Sámi, although today in a very different way. Tourism in the region means that more and more reindeer are used for sleigh rides and other activities, but they remain a vital food source in an area of the world where you can’t be too picky about your food.
The area of Sápmi which roughly corresponds with Lapland today is slightly bigger than Ireland but considering the isolation and staggeringly harsh conditions at times, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Sámi are far from being a single unified collective.
Not only are there huge empty distances between groups, but many speak completely different languages. Depending on how you want to define it, there are at least ten different languages spoken within Lapland and to make the whole situation that much more baffling, many of the languages bear little resemblance to each other and often have absolutely no link to modern Scandinavian languages.
Several Sámi languages have already become extinct, while others, such as Ume Sámi, are now spoken by less than 20 people in total. Interestingly, while the vast majority of the languages are completely different, and indeed some Sámi cannot actually communicate with others, there is one word that is the same no matter which Sámi language you speak – reindeer.
A Colourful Life
If the Sámi are most commonly associated with the Reindeer, it is their colourful and vibrant costumes and traditions that many are drawn to. The Gakti is a traditional homemade costume worn at parties and special events. Not only is each unique, but the patterns and designs used allow other members of the Sámi culture to tell immediately where the wearer is from.
Like indigenous communities across the Atlantic, the Sámi still use traditional tents similar to teepees called a lavv, which are typically used during winter when reindeer herders usually move their animals up into the mountains.
A Frozen Connection
And one for the kids. If your children were fans of the hugely popular Frozen movies then this might be the perfect opportunity to introduce them to the real-life Sámi culture that influenced the films.
The first Frozen movie began with a song, vuelie, which was co-written by Frode Fjellheim, a composer with Sámi roots. The song was based on an earlier piece named “Eatnemen Vuelie” written by Fjellheim and includes elements of joik, the Sámi folk music which is among the oldest musical traditions in Europe.
For the second film, Disney based much of the premise on the Sámi culture and landscapes that they call home. Many of the costumes and traditions, including the idea of spiritual connections with the natural world that appear in the film, come from the Sámi people and Disney worked closely with members of the community to ensure that details in the film were correct.
Santa Claus and Lapland – How it all began
The forest is quiet. The only sound that breaks the silence is the scrape of the sleigh’s runners slicing through the snow. You come to a stop beside a small house nestled between the trees, a chimney billows out smoke, and a warm glow illuminates the small windows – your long search is finally over.
As you approach the simple forest-dwelling, you notice that your heart has begun to beat a little bit faster. Logic and reason are overwhelmed by fantasy and a child-like enthusiasm you haven’t felt for years. After all these years, you’ve finally made it. You’re about to come face to face with Santa Claus.
Lapland’s Premier Resident
There’s plenty to enjoy about Lapland but the overwhelming majority of visitors this Christmas are there to catch sight of the region’s most famous resident and worldwide present distributor – Santa.
There’s no escaping jolly St Nicholas when you come to Lapland. Every year thousands flock to this frigid wilderness to visit the main man himself and make sure that those present requests are handed over in person rather than having to rely on the increasingly wobbly postal service.
But how did Lapland become so intrinsically intertwined with the story of Christmas? Why do over 30,000 letters arrive at a small Lapland Post Office each day during November and December addressed to Santa Clause?
The Yule Goat
To understand how Santa became associated with Lapland, we need to jump back hundred years to a time when everything was very very different.
Long before the modern idea of Christmas, folklore in what is today Lapland spoke of a Santa-like figure initially based on the Norse god Odin. Known as the Yule Goat, the name still used for Santa in Finland today, the figure was said to deliver gifts on Midwinter’s night with the help of small creatures known as tonttu who would later become Santa’s elves in the story of Christmas.
Thousands of miles away, in what is modern-day Turkey, another story had already taken hold. St Nicholas was said to have been born in 280 A.D. in Patara and tales of the monk’s piety and kindness soon become the stuff of legend.
After his death, and his elevation to the status of Saint, his reputation gradually spread until he had become one of Europe’s most popular religious figures by the 15th Century. St Nicholas was particularly popular in Holland where they used the nickname, Sinter Klaas, which of course eventually became the Santa Clause that we know today.
As traditions and myths began to merge, a unified version of Santa Claus emerged during the 19th Century and in 1866 an illustration in Harper’s Weekly magazine finally revealed that Santa lived at the North Pole and his connection to cold, snowy environments was established.
But as anybody who has ever travelled to the icy extremities of our world will testify, the North Pole is far from being a hospitable location for a cherished children’s story. In 1929, Finnish radio broadcaster Marcus Rautio announced that Santa’s workshop had in fact been discovered in Korvatunturi Fell – a mountain area close to the border between Finland and Russia – and the connection with Lapland was well and truly born. Looking at Korvatunturi it’s impossible to miss the strange ear-shaped rock that appears to be hanging from it – a feature we are reliably informed allows Santa to hear the wishes of every child on the planet.
If your children are among the thousands who write letters to Santa each year, then it is to a small but bustling Post Office in Rovaniemi where they all arrive. The administrative capital of Finnish Lapland is also where the official Santa Claus Village is, along with the SantaPark Arctic World just outside the city.
Yet Rovaniemi’s Christmas story has not always been a smooth one. Almost completely destroyed during the Second World War, Rovaniemi needed to be completely rebuilt once the fighting had ceased. Even then, progress was painfully slow for many years until the arrival of Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1950.
Much of the funding for the city’s reconstruction had come from UNICEF, an organisation Roosevelt had long held close ties with. Her arrival in the area was last minute and needed the hasty construction of a cabin to house the region’s most distinguished visitor. Designed in just a day and built over a single week, the cabin quickly became a huge tourist draw after the former first lady’s departure and remains part of the Santa Village to this day.
A Legend Born
A New York Times piece in 1957 saw Lapland promoted as a wilderness destination with a magical background for the first time and slowly visitors from the United States and around the world began heading to Rovaniemi.
Over the years, the city has welcomed many notable names, including US president Lyndon B. Johnson, Crown Prince Carl Gustav of Sweden, the Shah of Iran and even Leonid Brezhnev, the Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party.
In 1984 the governor of the Finnish area of Lapland declared the region ‘Santa Claus Land’ and that’s exactly how we know it today nearly forty years later.