If the size and complexity of Santa's Villages around the Arctic Circle determine the authenticity and nationality of the real man in red ... then it's official. Santa (or Joulupukki, meaning "Yule Goat") must be Finnish.
At the point where the Arctic Circle (or Napapiiri) crosses highway E75 just north of Rovaneimi there is the most elaborate tourist installation that we have seen anywhere, including North Pole, Alaska! Seven days a week, 365 days a year a visit here can include reindeer and dog sled rides, visits to Santa's workshop and post office, and, if you're willing to wait and pay the fee, visitors can also meet the man himself and have photos taken, while friends, family and total strangers can watch on webcams that beam video around the world. Oh, and you can walk the Arctic Circle here as well. It's marked in white on interlocking paving stones on the plaza of what is essentially a great big shopping mall.
What surprises us here is the draw of this place. Hundreds of thousands of people visit Joulupukin Pajkyla annually from all over the world, including whole planeloads of Brits who sign on for one-day all-inclusive packages from Manchester and other U.K. departure points. Lucky participants can rise in time for a six a.m. departure from England. And, from the moment they engage hosts in the terminal, in the air, on the buses in Finland and at the site, they can sing Christmas carols, eat Christmas fare, learn whether they have been naughty or nice, meet Rudolph, shop 'til they drop, live an extended Christmas fantasy and be back home in bed by midnight.
This July day, we meet people from the U.K., but more middle Europeans who have come by road and well-heeled Japanese who seem as besotted with Santa here as they are with Anne of Green Gable in P.E.I.
What is even more surprising is Mariah Carey and other American artists with their renditions of Christmas classics, in English, warbling into every cranny of the place from the tinny loudspeakers disguised to look like trees. And Santa, when we catch a glimpse of him, looking all white-bearded, red-suited and jolly, looks inspired by, if not the spitting image, of Haddon Sundblom's iconic ads for Coca Cola that have been circulating the world for nearly 80 years.
As such, it is not surprising that "Roosevelt Cottage" is part of the installation here, honouring Eleanor Roosevelt's visit to the site back in the early 1950s bringing aid to rebuild war-ravaged Finland, that seems to have sown the idea that this point on the Arctic Circle might be a likely place to cash crop tourists on a Santa theme. A month or so prior to Mrs. Roosevelt's visit, the cover of Time magazine featured an animated round Coca Cola sign feeding coke to an equally round and jolly animated globe with the heading "World & Friend” — Love that piaster, that lira, that tickey and that American way of life. Things, it seems, go better with Coke no matter where you are.
We stay long enough to tip-toe along the Arctic Circle and take our own photos in front of a world map showing the Arctic Circle in Santa's post office (which are two of a very small number of things one can do without charge here, besides shop) and moved on down the road to Rovaniemi, the capital of Finland's most northerly province, Lapland. Thinking this might be the place to try avokukko (open-faced fish loaf) or some of the other delicious Finnish or perhaps Sami dishes, we pass sign and logo as familiar as the Coke santa. "Visit the northernmost golden arches in the world," it says. Oh say, can you see … by the line's midnight light?