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Christmas in Finnish Lapland

After 3 months of being on student exchange, the time had come for me to embark on a long-awaited Christmas adventure to snowy Finnish Lapland. This experience is literally the polar opposite of what it’s like in my home country, sunny Australia. I was especially looking forward to the untouched nature and of course the elusive northern lights.

On the long bus journey, we stopped over at Santa’s village in Rovaniemi and walked across the arctic circle. It can’t get any more Christmas vibe than this!

After over 12 hours of being on a bus, my group finally arrived at the pine-tree filled winter wonderland that was Saariselkä. We were staying in a rustic wooden log cabin complete with a fireplace and sauna.

Picturesque log cabins are where you can expect to stay at in Lapland.

There was fluffy snow up to the knees everywhere. Being above the arctic circle, this time of year is the polar night, where the Sun does not rise for several weeks. However, there were about 3 to 4 hours each day with twilight conditions. Being an avid aurora-chaser, it makes for an ideal opportunity to catch a glimpse of the northern lights – if only the clouds stay away at night.

The local area around where I was staying… so pristine and natural.

Beyond searching for the elusive northern lights, this place was an amazing location for a wide variety of activities that I tried, including husky-sledding, snow-shoeing, skiing, sauna, ice-swimming and of course nature photography. It was especially great to meet some husky puppies. But more than anything, it’s a place to wind down and take in the quiet and fresh air of the nature on short walks. It was indeed one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been.

I actually have a very funny story to tell about my phone whilst husky-sledding. After my turn on the sled was complete, I realised my new Finnish Nokia smartphone had fallen out of my pocket (duh!) and into the snow somewhere in the arctic wilderness.

Husky-sledding in the arctic.

After lunch, the tour guide and my friends decided to make a search party. Walking through the snowy wilderness in the fading light conditions at 2pm, there seemed to be little hope, but the untouched and silent nature was just surreal. Suddenly, at the very end of the journey we found just a tiny bit of the phone sticking out of the snow. It was basically a block of ice.

But it was still on! And to my great surprise — still at 75 percent battery. The next thing to do is typically Finnish — to take the phone to the sauna so the ice can melt.

And this plan worked! Because afterwards it was working perfectly fine.

Lapland with its photogenic forests.

On the first night, I was most eager to see the northern lights. There were good geomagnetic conditions for aurora, so it was promising. That’s until I stepped out of the warmth of the cabin to see that the sky was mostly full of cloud. Nevertheless, I went outside as there was a few gaps where I could see a star or two. After walking around the village and shooting photos without luck for over an hour in -10 degrees, it was time to head to bed.

Then I awoke suddenly to find my cabin-buddies announcing that the northern lights would be visible soon! Half-asleep, I looked out the window to see nothing. I thought the window was facing north, but it was actually facing south, a mistake that would bite me this night.

I managed to find my compass which pointed me north, and by the time I got outside, there was only a very faint polar light show, with cloud rolling in again. The others who reacted faster saw a much better show this night.

Finnish Lapland is one of the best places in the world to see the enchanting northern lights. Photocredit: Jonna Saari.

The next night, in even colder and windier conditions, more luck was on my side, but only for a good twenty minutes. The skies cleared briefly just at the right moment to see a band of aurora flickering overhead and down to the horizon. I managed to get this photo before it clouded over again.

No matter how many times I have seen the lights, or how impressive they have been, it is always immensely exciting!

A brief show of the northern lights in the forested fells of Lapland in the midst of the long polar night.

The next night had even better auroral conditions, but it was cloudy and snowing heavily so there was no point of going outside. The following (and final night) there was a few hours of clear skies in the early evening, but the auroral conditions were so weak that only those on the aurora tours managed to see them, and only briefly. Though I did hear of a couple who got engaged as soon as they saw them! That’s definitely a Christmas to remember for them. And for us, it was for sure an adventure to look back on!

The blue twilight hour falls relatively early in the afternoon at this time of year in Lapland.

5 + 1 things that Nature can teach us about spending Christmas

Finnish Nature is a fine place to quiet down at any time. It is always near, and here in Finland it is still possible to find a spot of absolute stillness, where no traffic or other human made noise can be heard. Just the sounds and smells of forest, rivers or the sea.

During Christmas season we often get stressed. We are in such a hurry to create the perfect setting, perfect food and perfect gifts for our loved ones. Nature, on the other hand, is as calm as ever even in the high season. Maybe there is something we could learn from Nature about how to spend Christmas without the hurry and the buzz.

Photo by Minttu Heimovirta

1. Peace

Nature does not ask questions, complain or insist. It isn’t impatient or anxious.

In midwinter, Nature is truly still and at peace.

Go for a walk – only your footsteps can be heard. You can feel the energy of the sleeping earth under your feet. But to experience it you must remember to stop. And be absolutely quiet.

Photo by Minttu Heimovirta

2. Unselfish generosity

Above the silent ground, the Moon and the Sun ride across the sky day and night after another. They light our paths at all times, and without asking they paint the sky blue, purple and red, making such mixes even the most skillful painters get jealous. All that we humans can do is enjoy the view and sigh: Oh how beautiful!

3. Living in a moment

In Christmastime, the northern part of Finland is covered with a thick layer of snow. In the south, the ground can appear bare but is covered with fallen leaves. Under Nature’s own winter blanket the earth is resting and gaining its strength. In the spring Nature will blossom again in its full glory, but just now it is dim, silent and mysterious. Nature is not inpatient, it is content with this very moment.

4. Gratitude

Under ground, there are all kinds of animals sleeping in Christmastime: bears, badgers, even perhaps the moomins. On the ground, however, life is a struggle. birds are doing all they can to find something to eat, so are mooses and hares. Reindeer have to dig snow to find some lichen under the cover. Animals don’t waste time wishing they had more. They are grateful for every bite.

Photo by Minttu Heimovirta

5. Licence to relax

Nature doesn’t apologise for not offering blooming flowers or gleaming waters in the winter. It doesn’t suffer from a bad conscience if it’s not all neat and tidy. Nature knows its value and takes a break when it is needed. Maybe you shouldn’t worry about what other people might think either.

+1: Joy

After Christmas the Sun begins to bathe the earth with its bright colours longer and longer. In the northernmost Finland the Sun returns after Kaamos, the arctic night, when it hasn’t even showed in a month or more. Before long, you can hear the rivers and their rapids roar, and see plants emerge again from the ground and grow taller and taller.

Christmas is a turning point for Nature. Soon the stillness of winter will end. And new time begins. Enjoy the rest now.

We wish everybody peaceful Christmas and happy new year!

What are Santa’s reindeer like?

We know Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen and the other reindeer pulling Santa’s Important Sleigh by name, but really nothing else. I went to find out what Santa’s reindeers are really like. They live all around Lapland, some in Torassieppi, Muonio.

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Meet Rolle, one of Santa’s less famous reindeer. The antlers are pretty impressive! Rolle is always willing to work hard and he is very patient with humans (and elves). He stood still for the photo shoot like a real pro model. Did you know that reindeer see ultraviolet light! The world looks very different with Rolle’s eyes.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet Rudolph, as he was resting and saving his energy for the Big Day. But there are big personalities amongst the others as well.

Antlers are a signal of fitness

The bigger the antlers, the better father material you are in the eyes of the ladies. Lads cannot cheat and grow ridiculously large antlers, however, as it is up to genes and fitness how large they grow. 

Unlike other deer, female reindeer have antlers too, although smaller ones. Most likely the function is to better defend their young.

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Antlers grow at astonishing speed, as much as 2 cm per day! Reindeer antlers are the largest of all deers, relative to body size.

Reindeer shed their antlers once a year, males after the rutting (mating) season. Some hold on to their crown until Christmas, probably to show off when travelling with Santa. Others won’t get rid of them until spring! Big antlers are heavy to carry and not very handy in thick forest, so there is really no need to keep them after the ladies have seen them in Autumn. Females loose their antlers in the summer.

Reindeer are not fussy with food

The favourite food of reindeer is lichen. But in the forest during their summer holidays reindeer also munch mushrooms and plants. It has been counted that reindeer eat over 350 different species of plant! The strategy is to pile up weight as much as possible before the long winter.

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In Torassieppi the elves feed the reindeer an armful of hay a day, plus some protein rich lichen and reindeer pellets. To keep them in shape.

In the winter they smell food under a thick layer of snow. They have a very good sense of smell, it is reindeer’s most import sense.

His name is Aaro. He can be a bit moody and doesn’t get along with everybody. Aaro tends to prefer female elves and co-operates well with them! He does like his caretaker Tommi (at the background), with whom he goes sledding often.

Extreme cold doesn’t bother

Reindeer can manage in extreme cold, in -50 degrees of Celsius.

My lungs hurt if I ski at full speed in -25 C. Reindeer warm cold air in the long nose before it enters lungs.

But the coolest (or warmest) trick is in the fur: They have a very thick underlayer of hair, and overcoat is made of stiff, hollow hair that traps air for insulation. Actually Santa’s reindeer could make their journey by swimming, as the air trapping fur works like a life vest!

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I personally often get cold feet even in my warmest shoes. Reindeer don’t care, even if the temperature in their feet goes near freezing point. They don’t get a frost bite as I would, thanks to a specialised circulation system, in addition to a super cool antifreeze liquid in their bone marrow. True story.

Need to stop for a wee

In Finnish we have a measurement poronkusema which means the distance a reindeer runs without urinating. It is 7-8 km in fact. Reindeer cannot run and pee, so when sledding, they must be stopped at certain intervals so they can use the bathroom. I noticed at least Rolle seemed to empty his bladder every time we stopped on our 3 km sledding trip, just in case. It is actually very dangerous for the reindeer if he can’t go in a long time.

So if you see something yellow on the snow next to your house on Christmas Day, you know what it is!

These guys are sharing a joke. Or they both just love sledding. One of the elves is practising with young Harmikas (1,5 years old), who is too young to participate in Santa’s crew just yet.

 

See reindeer at Harriniva Torassieppi village, Lapland

Map to Torassieppi

Finding Santa’s Childhood Home

Everybody knows where Santa Claus a.k.a Father Christmas really lives right? It is not North Pole. Santa lives in Korvatunturi, Lapland! But if you’d fancy seeing what his childhood home looked like, you have to climb up the grand Levi fell in Kittilä. Or take a gondola straight up.

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Levi in the arctic night, kaamos as we call it. Photo: Mira Pyy

The talk about North Pole is just to cover the true story about Santa’s home. All of us Finns know it. Korvatunturi is a fell far far away in Urho Kekkonen National Park, very near the Russian border in Eastern Lapland. You actually need a special permit if you want to go there. In addition, it is 20 km from the nearest road so a bit of a hike by feet or skis. Santa chose well as there are not many nosy children snooping around before Christmas.

Santa’s childhood

In 2007 a movie was filmed called Christmas Story (Joulutarina, directed by Juha Wuolijoki). It tells a tale about a little boy Nicholas who later became Santa Claus. As a boy he lived in a cute little cottage high up on a fell.

Santa’s cottage. Rising up with the gondola you can see the rooftop of the cottage when nearing the top.

Guess what, the cottage filmed in the movie is still there! You can go visit it, if you find it. There are no signposts, you just have to know where to go.

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We came here by skis, me here with alpine skis, my friend with telemarks. Photo: Mira Pyy

The way to the cottage

It is situated on the southwest side of the fell, near the top, off piste, in between the gondola (World Cup and west pistes) and lift number 11 (south pistes).

In the winter you get there by snowshoeing, skinning up with skis, or the easiest option: by taking a gondola from the Levi ski resort up to the top, and descend down a bit, preferably by skis or snowshoes or you will sink in the snow up to your waist.

In the summer you get there by hiking up or by downhill biking (one track passes the cabin).

It is an adventure finding the cottage, plus a perfect place for a break, away from the piste lights. My friend Mira is admiring the view to the neighbouring fells Aakenus and Kätkätunturi.

The gondola starting point
Map pointing Santa’s cottage