Santa Claus doesn't live just at the North Pole. He lives in Finland, or maybe Norway or Sweden or Greenland or Iceland, all of which claim him--and all of which have special offices to answer letters to Santa.
The five Nordic countries compete for the hearts and minds of children all over the world at this time of year, responding to hundreds of thousands of letters as Christmas approaches. Finland gets the biggest volume, but Sweden may offer the best deal: Kids get not only a return reply, but a little stocking-stuffer package.
In the United States, local post offices try to deal with as many Santa letters as possible, usually with volunteer helpers. The Scandinavian approach is much more official.
About 20,000 letters are addressed to a Swedish Santa, and they keep five or six full-time employees busy at the futuristic main postal terminal outside Stockholm. Sweden has been receiving Santa mail for almost 100 years.
"We answer all letters that have a return address, mailing back a fairy tale book, coloring book and puzzle with a greeting from the 'Mail Santa,"' a Swedish official said.
Of the 20,000 letters Sweden received last year, about 7,500 were from American children. In Finland, about 5,500 of 200,000 letters came from the United States.
The post offices usually have pre-printed replies both in their native tongue and in English. Finland also has form letters in Swedish, German and Japanese--those from Spanish- and French-speaking countries usually get a reply in English.
Letters in unfamiliar languages are delivered to translators. Sometimes the letters include money, all of which is donated to the United Nations children's fund.
British children started writing to Santa in Norway in 1947 after Norway presented the British people with a national Christmas tree. On display in London's Trafalgar Square, the tree is a yearly gift in honor of World War II allegiances.
Since then, letters from all corners of the Earth have found their way to Santa's workshop at the Norwegian tourist agency in Oslo.
"This year we expect to get about 65,000 letters", said "head elf" and agency president Avild Kristiansen. "They come all year round, and we try to answer them as soon as possible." Santa's reply explains Christmas traditions in Norway and adds promotional material about the wide variety of Norwegian wintertime activities.
The 14,000 children who wrote to Santa in Greenland last Christmas received a note signed, "your old friend, Santa Claus" from the post office in Kangerlussuaq, north of the capital, Nuuk.
The service was started eight years ago after a newspaper story, headlined "The Postal Service Does Not Even Know Santa Claus," told of a letter addressed to St. Nick that was returned to sender, stamped "address unknown."
During his yearly visit to local sick children, Greenland's Santa flies into Nuuk on Christmas Eve in a helicopter supplied by the national airline.
Helga Thorsteins at Iceland's tourist board has been filling Santa's shoes for 10 years, answering an annual 1,500 letters. She treasures a recent note from a girl saying, "My mother has still got the letter you sent her when she wrote."
Iceland also boasts two commercial Santas, both of whom will answer letters sent to them. A Reykjavik firm sponsoring one of them recently put an ad in an international newspaper offering membership in "the Santa Claus Town club" for only "$6 . . . for postage and handling. . . . "
If volume is the deciding factor on Santa's real residence, the Finns win hands down. At the remote Rovaniemi post office in Finnish Lapland, 200,000 letters had poured in by early December.
Determined to put Santa on the map in Lapland, Finland a few years ago set up "the Santa Claus Project," a tourist development program for the region based in Rovaniemi and supported by government funds.