White Christmas: An Australian in Lapland

Learning to drive a sleigh. Flickr/zsoolt
Learning to drive a sleigh in Lapland. Flickr/zsoolt

“Go Rudolph!” I shouted, timidly flailing the rope toward the reindeer’s rear end. I wanted to follow the instructions of the herder, but was reluctant to nudge the animal being kind enough to drag me across the snow here in Lapland.

“Make noise and use rope!” had been my trainer’s parting words as I grabbed at the ropes and tried to sit straight on the low wooden sleigh. Not sure what sounds would propel a reindeer, I continued to improvise, “Run, boy, run!

Christmas in Lapland, Finland

But rather than dashing through the snow, my Rudolph plodded along the track, a well-worn path that circled the small, fenced-in paddock. This clever reindeer had plenty of visual guidance on where he should be going, and he could simply ignore my useless instructions and rope movements.

Such a self-sufficient philosophy suited me rather well, and after I was out of sight of the locals, I gave up on the shouting and rope twirling, and let Rudolph do his job as I savored the clean peace of the field.

He trotted along cheerfully, not showing any sign of strain from the load of pulling me and the sleigh. It was reassuring to think he’d have enough strength to pull a sack of presents as well.

Later, I learned that “he” was in fact a “she,” and that I should have been screaming, “Go Ulla!” which perhaps would have sped up the process. I didn’t feel this mattered at all as I hopped off the sleigh and handed the reins to my boyfriend for his first training run, leaving me free to gaze around at the white world around me.

Reindeer sleigh rides in Finland are something you'll never forget. Flickr/Heather Sunderland
A reindeer-drive sleigh ride in Finland is something you’ll never forget. Flickr/Heather Sunderland

The rickety wooden fence was barely visible among the snowdrifts, and naturally snow-decorated Christmas trees formed a neat line toward the horizon.

I felt the need to give my arm a strong pinch. Could I really be up at the Arctic Circle getting my reindeer-driving license on Christmas Day? Would the real Rudolph’s shiny nose appear on the horizon any minute?

Travel in Finland

This was the Christmas of my dreams, somehow brought to life. As a child in Australia, Christmas had meant a hot day by the pool or at the beach with a barbecue lunch; yet carrot-nosed snowmen had adorned our Christmas cards, and warmly dressed Santas, our wrapping paper, while we sang songs about white Christmases and reindeer sprinting across the snowy sky.

The idea that this fairytale concept was actually a reality in some parts of the world didn’t hit me until long after Santa had stopped leaving presents at the foot of my bed.

I’d been a bit skeptical before our arrival in Lapland, the sparsely populated, extremely chilly region of Finland in far northern Europe that lies mostly above the Arctic Circle. The Internet had told me that average December temperatures in Rovaniemi ― the capital of Finnish Lapland and a 10-hour train trip north of Helsinki ― ranged between 4 and 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-16 to -10º C).

My travel preparations for travel to Finland had been considerably more intense than usual: I’d bought thermal underwear and thick woolly socks, and packed extra layers of everything in true Boy Scout fashion. More seasonally adjusted European friends had advised me, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Lunch time. Flickr/Thomas
Lunch time. Flickr/Thomas

Within a day of landing in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland in Finland, I’d already learned one curious fact beyond the knowledge of most: Nostril hairs freeze when the temperature falls below 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15º C).

Rovaniemi, Finland

Tearing along a frozen river on a snowmobile was another new experience, although the tranquil pace of snowshoeing suited me better. Unfortunately, it seemed that my inability to catch a fish in Australia had followed me all the way to the other end of the world, when my attempt at ice fishing ended in a meal of campfire sausages with my unsurprised guide.

Like most westernized destinations, there was no forgetting that Christmas was approaching, with the usual sparkly tinsel, red baubles and illuminated Christmas trees crowding the hotels, shops and house windows.

Santa’s Village

But the true spirit of Christmas was waiting for me at Santa’s Village, located directly on the Arctic Circle, a short bus ride from Rovaniemi. After mentally cataloging the incredible array of countries from which Santa had received letters, I sent my own special greetings to my family from Santa’s Post Office, and then nervously went to meet the man himself.

The chubby bearded one ― not only a master at putting both adults and children at ease, but also adept at multilingual conversation ― knowledgeably discussed the climate of our Australian hometown with us before turning to the question of how we were coping with a Lapland winter. “Getting there,” we answered, before making warmer weather our special Christmas request of Santa.

By Christmas Day, we had adapted to the cold completely — well, as much as Australians can, let’s say. Donning all our cold-weather finery, we took a final snowmobile ride to a reindeer farm and its appropriately named caretaker, Reino the reindeer herder.

Reindeer-drawn sleigh in Lapland. Flickr/Timo Newton-Syms
Reindeer-drawn sleigh in Lapland. Flickr/Timo Newton-Syms

After we had each completed several circuits of the sleigh track without losing control of our reindeer, native Laplander Reino awarded us our reindeer sleigh-driving licenses, valid for five years. I guess that means we’ll have to go back to Reino’s farm soon, or at the very least, when our licenses come up for renewal. You never know when Santa might need some Aussies to help drive the sleigh.

If You Go

Finnish Tourist Board
www.visitfinland.com

Numerous safari companies offer both day trips and longer journeys, from Rovaniemi and other smaller towns, such as Kemi. Each company’s offerings are similar in content and price.

It’s easy to book independently over the Internet ― Finns speak excellent English, so there’s no language barrier ― and a lot cheaper than taking one of the many organized package tours.

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