“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 hit the animal being kind enough to drag me across the snow.
“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!
”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.
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?
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 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 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.”
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