Doctor D’mello’s Dormitory for the Deeply Demented,” exclaimed a well-wisher when I told him about my Christmas-in-the-Arctic-Circle plan, “that is your ideal destination for Christmas, considering the condition of your upper storey.”
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“But Santa Claus is there and I have been good, so I’m going to collect,” I explained.
He gave me a worried look, no doubt thinking that the only place I should be headed for the holidays was a padlocked, padded cell, and then tried to convince me again. “Have you seriously lost it? You’ll freeze and come back frost-bitten.”
Santa delivering gifts
But shying away from extremes has never been my game and I walked out of Rovaniemi’s little airport on a crisp December evening with snow crunching underfoot. In that first instant, I knew exactly what J.K. Rowling had in mind for a dementor’s kiss. Every BTU of heat seemed to be sucked out of me in a second, even the moisture in my breath froze and irritated the back of my throat.
“Hello and welcome,” said Steffi, who was there from Lapland Safaris to greet me. She was snug behind layers of Gore-Tex, nylon and polyester. “We’ll get you into your Arctic kit and you’ll soon forget about the cold and start enjoying Lapland in the winter.”
Coming from a country where woollies are pulled out with much fanfare when the mercury falls below 15 degrees Celsius, most of us would consider prancing about outdoors at the same figure on the wrong side of zero maniacal. But, believe me, it’s all in the mind.
Once I was in my Arctic gear, the cold lost its icy edge.
It was a clear day and, during this time of the year, the sun skirts the horizon, rather than popping over and disappearing under it. So daylight hours are a long extended moment of dawn, the night sky is a hue of indigo blue and the land glows, thanks to residual light reflecting off the snow everywhere. Rovaniemi is the capital of Finnish Lapland, a village that grew up to be a town. It got its first traffic lights last year and the residents thought they were an unnecessary extravagance.
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Once in my hotel room, in a fell about 30km from the airport, I was all set to toast myself before the roaring fire in the cosy lounge when I heard the roar of engines starting up. I rushed outside and, in the quick diminishing light saw them: a line-up of Lynx skimobiles—or skidoos, as they are popularly called—their idling engines making them quiver like beasts impatient to get going.
A group of German tourists was about to set off for an evening snowmobile safari through the fell and forested hillsides. “Would you like to join us?” asked Steffi. Would I ever? In a flash I was in my Arctic suit on my skidoo, part of the nine-vehicle convoy.
Reading the lust for speed quite correctly in our eyes, Steffi emphatically laid out a few ground rules: We would proceed in a single file. There would be no racing. No overtaking either. But she set such a blistering pace that soon the forested hillsides with their snow-laden birches were throbbing with the throaty exhaust notes of the 400 cc Rotax engines. We zigzagged through forested paths and twisty trails, up and down the white hillsides, pausing only to let wild reindeer herds cross the path. Midway, we stopped for a cup of hot berry juice around a fire. Lest we forget where we were, we were treated to a splendid display of the Aurora Borealis, the famed Northern Lights.
Rudolph the reindeer’s sleigh
The Kemijoki river, which runs past Rovaniemi, morphs into a frozen highway for skidoos in winter, complete with signposts and speed limits. The next morning I set out on one with Steffi as my pillion towards Santa Claus Village, 34.2km away. By now I had quite got the hang of the skidoo and could zip through narrow trails with snowdrifts on either side without lifting off the throttle.
So close to Christmas, Santa’s village was a flurry of activity, with decorated Christmas trees at every corner and the merry ambient sound of sleigh bells. Elves, or staff, were furiously sorting mail. A letter addressed to “Santa Claus, Arctic Circle”, dropped in any post box around the world, will find its way here. No surprise then that Santa’s post office receives up to 32,000 letters a day in the run-up to Christmas. Every letter with a return address is answered.
Still, scores of children were here in person to see the big man for themselves. While their mums shopped for official Santa Claus merchandise—no freebies here—and the fathers eyed the elves, very pretty rosy-cheeked Finnish girls, we lined up with them to go and meet Father Christmas himself in his study. Now I knew—as I have no doubt some of them did too—that it’s just a regular guy dressed up as Santa Claus in there, but the creaking footboards and the cave-like atmosphere allow quite a willing suspension of disbelief.
Excitement peaked as we finally filed inside the warm study presided over by a Santa exuding exemplary good cheer. Rugs and bookshelves and an antique telephone made for the perfect setting for the large man with the flowing beard and furry moccasins, as dozens of wildly excited children made a beeline to be photographed with him.
An ice restaurant near Rovaniemi
But it’s getting on to Christmas, and so Santa had only limited time for his faithfuls. On to, then, his nine reindeer: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder, Blitzen and, of course, Rudolf, him of the red nose, at Konttaniemi Reindeer Farm, 14km away, by the Ounasjoki river. After glasses of hot berry juice—cranberry, blueberry, cloudberry, lingonberry are very popular in Finland—we could finally try our luck with the reindeer sleighs. I waited till I was out of earshot and then tried my deepest imitation of “Ho, ho, ho, up you go”. But try as I might, not a single reindeer went airborne.
My next few days in and around Rovaniemi, were spent visiting the stunning Artikum museum and going on a husky safari. By now the cold had become inconsequential, even though at times it did touch -20 degrees Celsius. I spent the jolliest time of the year in the neighbourhood of the season’s central figure and returned home feeling warm inside and with all my extremities intact.
Dr D’mello’s dorm can wait a couple more years.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Photographs by Rishad Saam Mehta
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