Scanning the framed photos of Santa posing with visiting dignitaries, I spot his portrait with the Spice Girls. “Everyone in that picture wants to know what you want, what you really, really want,” I note with a smile.
We pass through another wooden door and boom! I’m face-to-face with St. Nick himself and utterly starstruck.
For most of my life, I’ve considered him more the “spirit of Christmas that lives in our hearts” than a living, breathing being. So, it’s a shock when his massive, pillowy hand engulfs mine. I notice the strangest details. He’s so … warm! His felted shoes are easily three times the size of mine, with comically bulbous toes. His beard? Epic. (Later, when I try to snap a quick selfie, I can’t even get the whole thing in the frame.)
Remember that scene from A Christmas Story, where a tongue-tied Ralphie nearly blows his big moment with the mall Santa? I’m perilously close to such a fate when I recall the green notebook in my hands and snap back to reality. (Is this reality?)
“I once sat down by the fire and started to count my age,” Santa is soon explaining in a soft, resonant voice. “But when I reached 374, I fell asleep.”
I learn he can fly, but only at Christmas and only with reindeer. The snow at his house is very, very deep. He drops a few not-so-subtle hints about enjoying homemade cookies and hot chocolate. When I ask what he loves most about Lapland, I’m surprised to discover he’s an avid outdoorsman who loves the Finnish traditions of taking saunas, trekking through the forest on snowshoes, and foraging for mushrooms.
“Mostly, I like to go with Mrs. Santa into the woods and build a fire,” he says. “If the sky is clear, we see the aurora borealis. When I see that, I hope that all the children in the world can play with each other and don’t have to be afraid.”
From the hall, I hear an elf greeting the day’s next visitors with “Ni Hao!” and “Buongiorno!”—a signal that my visit with Santa is nearly over. But first, a mission.
“When you go back home, please say very warm greetings to all little and big children in the neighborhood. In that way, you can be my helper,” Santa says. “And please give my very warm greetings to Adam, Ellie, and Cael.”
Over the rest of my three-day trip, I’ll sample some of Santa’s favorite pastimes, steaming myself to a puddle in a sauna carved into a snowbank and snowshoeing through the wooded hill in Rovaniemi’s city center. My late-night vigil in the Arctic forest, when—just as we turn our snowmobiles to leave the aurora borealis at last turns on its dazzling green lights, will become one of my most memorable travel experiences to date.
But for now, I have big news to share with some little kids. Three fresh Dear Santa postcards in hand, I hoof it across the village.