Although it always seems to be Christmas in Lapland, the most northerly region of Finland, December is the best time of year to experience the warmth - despite the below-zero temperatures! - of the festive spirit. Winter is the ideal season to visit this far-off destination and enjoy some of the activities which this time of year makes possible: you can go on a sled safari pulled by huskies, get the adrenaline going on a snowmobile, skate on a frozen lake, walk among reindeer, tone your body with a snow sauna... or gaze in rapture at the sight of the aurora borealis at night.
We are in the capital of Finnish Lapland, Rovaniemi, after arriving from Spain with a connecting flight at Helsinki. The minuscule airport welcomes its visitors with Christmas music and flying reindeer over the luggage carousel, where children of all sizes and nationalities in colourful anoraks are running around in excitement. They can't wait to meet Father Christmas in person.
Once settled in, whether travelling with children or not, the first thing to do has to be a visit to Santa, and in fact there is plenty to see in the official residence of this venerable elderly gentleman. It is exactly over the Arctic Polar Circle - called Napapiiri (nothing to do with the clothing brand Napapijri, which is not spelled quite the same and is, in any case, Italian) - that imaginary line from which at least there is at least one day a year in which the sun never sets and another which is perpetually night-time.
Santa Claus Village has a reindeer farm, a gift-making workshop and the home of the elves who handle Santa's postal service. Its post office receives 15 million cards from all over the world, and the Christmas cards which are sent from here (by ordinary post) bear the original Santa Claus postmark. If we decide not to send friends and families festive greetings by email for one year, so what? They will undoubtedly be delighted to receive a card instead, bearing the emblematic stamp of the home of Santa Claus.
It is interesting to note, in the words of Santa himself, that: "Although the children normally ask for toys, we are receiving more letters these days asking for peace in the world, or for wars to stop.... or for their father to find a job". Times are changing, and making Santa's mission more complicated.
After this obligatory visit, the next thing to do in Rovaniemei is to head for the Arktikum (arktikum.fi), an interesting museum which explains in detail how Scandinavian countries have been able to survive amid the darkness, cold and desolation of the Great North. This visit will also give us a greater understanding of the rest of our trip to Lapland. The museum has an important exhibition on the country's flora and fauna as well as displays of magnificent nature photography.
In the past, Lapland was subject to a type of gold fever, but a Nordic version. In the 1860s gold was found close to what is now the village of Saariselkä, and people from all over Scandinavia came in droves to sift the waters of the Ivalo river in the hope of becoming rich.
That was a long time ago, but the hope lives on. 'Gold diggers' still come here, the occasional gold nugget is found in the river, and although it is only worth enough to by a beer in a village bar, it is the feeling of being on an adventure that matters.
The bar in question is in Tankavaara; it is a charming place with a log fire and the usual picturesque clientele, and still accepts gold as a form of currency. The owners are making sure that gold fever does not die out, and the bar is decorated as if it were an authentic saloon from the Far West. Photos of Wyatt Earp, the famous sheriff of Arizona, gunman Billy el Niño and Sioux chief Sitting Bull decorate the smoked wooden walls, along with tools used by the goldpanners. Tankavaara looks a bit like a ghost town in a film, and its few inhabitants dress like the legendary adventurers of the American West.
This is also a good place to go out and look for the magical Northern Lights. If the night sky is starry, it's a question of luck. The 'revontulent', as the aurora borealis is known in Finnish, can be rather capricious, but normally it is just a matter of patience. When you have seen these lights, you will understand the mysticism and legends that surround them.
According to a Lapland legend, the colourful curtains of light are foxes that swish their tails, creating sparks in the sky, which is a much more poetical explanation than the actual physical cause. In scientific terms, the aurora borealis is caused by particles with an electrical charge which come from the sun, and they collide with others as they enter the earth's atmosphere, creating different colours of light.
The Sami people
The Samis, who were nomads in other times, have gradually adopted sedentary customs and dedicated themselves to agriculture and livestock farming. Nowadays they even have their own parliament. However, these people are arousing interest among anthropologists because of their confusing ethnic origins, their shamanic beliefs and their language.
The villages which mark the rhythm of the Sami heartbeat are Ivalo and Inari. In Inari, the Siidashouldn't be missed; it is a museum which preserves the native Sami culture and gives a general perspective of the rich tradition of beliefs of this people.
The artisan manufacture of wooden items (drums, cups, skis, knives etc) which occupies a great deal of their time, is also part of their spirit. Lapland crafts are designed to be used. More than a job this was, and still is, a way of life. Therefore, when you see or buy a Sami item, remember that it is not just a souvenir; it is a reflection of a slower way of life.