Santa bounced from a couch as we followed two elves into his workshop on the Arctic Circle in the province of Lapland. He fluffed his beard, held out his hand and greeted us with a hearty "Welcome!"
We had driven down from the far north of Finnish Lapland and discovered that this has been the busiest year ever for Santa's Village and his Lapland workshops, which have become year-round tourist destinations for nearly 300,000 visitors from Finland and other nations.
Plans are being made for a visit after the holiday season by 600 Santa Clauses. It will be the first annual World Congress of Santas.
Santa told us that he expects to receive and answer about 400,000 letters from children this Christmas. That would exceed last year's record of 354,136 letters from children in 117 countries. The elves at his Arctic Circle Post Office have computers that help handle the volume of mail.
Though Santa still likes to travel across winter snows in his reindeer-drawn sleigh, when necessary he becomes part of the Jet Age, carrying the Christmas message to faraway places. He says his reindeer are best suited for long distance travel only on Christmas Eve.
What was his most memorable journey last year? Santa answered without hesitation: "My visit to Pope John Paul at the Vatican."
The Pope stood up as Santa Claus was ushered into his presence, held out his hand and said: "You must be from Finland. It's a pleasure to meet you. May you have a happy and blessed Christmas."
We toured Santa's workshop, which was colorful with the handicrafts of Lapland. Santa discussed plans to be in Beverly Hills after Thanksgiving, and to bring back 20 children suffering from leukemia.
We met Santa again in Beverly Hills just before he left with the children for their visit to his workshop. This is the third holiday season of a special kinship between Beverly Hills and Santa Claus Village on the Arctic Circle. Ninety-eight child leukemia patients have traveled with Santa from Southern California to Lapland.
As part of its own 75th birthday anniversary this year, Beverly Hills is saluting 350 years of Finnish-American friendship. Before leaving with the leukemia patients, Santa visited Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, flipped a switch to turn on Beverly Hills Christmas lights and led a Rodeo Drive parade.
Santa's visits to Southern California and the Vatican indicate how far the Lapland project has reached beyond such original goals as building tourism for Lapland and a market for its handicrafts.
The idea of creating a Santa Claus land in Lapland began in 1927 when Markus Rautio, a Finnish radio announcer and producer of children's programs, announced that he had "found" Santa's home in Korvatunturi Fell. It's near where a cairn recently was placed to mark the border between Finland and the Soviet Union.
The discovery remained only a fantasy through the Depression era and World War II, after which the idea slowly began to attract interest.
In the early 1980s, a Santa Claus Work Group was established by the Finnish Tourist Board. On Dec. 16, 1984, Asko Oinas, provincial governor of Lapland, officially declared all of Lapland to be "Santa Claus Land."
The following year, Santa Claus Village opened at the Arctic Circle near the provincial capital city of Rovaniemi. That same year the wildlife park at Ranua, in nearby Lapland, was named "Santa Claus's Own Wildlife Park."
A mascot elf in Santa Claus cap, jacket and boots is on duty all year at the park to answer questions about the 35 species of arctic birds and other wildlife, including the bear, wolf, lynx and wolverine.
The Castle of Murr Murr, and its bear mascot Dolores, sits adjacent to the park. Santa's Village gets stuffed toys from the castle, and one tower is a puppet theater.
Elves learn their skills at Santa's Elf Training College in Pohtimo, which also is open to visitors.
The Santa Claus Land program is funded by the Lapland Provincial Government and by the Ministry of Trade and Industry through the Finnish Tourist Board. Completion of what will be 20 attractions is set for 1990.
The address for writing Santa has been simplified: Santa Claus, Arctic Circle, Finland.
Gifts and Souvenirs
Small industries and handicrafts of Lapland can use the Santa Claus Land label only after the products pass rigid standards of suitability and quality. They have to qualify as gifts and souvenirs. The same standards apply to major Finnish companies that make a Santa Claus Land product. The approved trademark is a J for Joulumaa, the Finnish designation of Santa Claus Land.
There are six Santa's Workshops in Lapland. Products range from toys and sculptured wildlife to stitchery, gemstone jewels, the classic Arctic Circle Glassworks and the Tankavaara Gold Village. You can even try your own hand at traditional handicrafts.
While visiting Santa and his workshops, visitors ski the slopes and cross-country trails in winter, and hike the wildlife parks and visit the people, homes and reindeer farms throughout the year. Fishing the streams of this "land o' lakes" during the season of the midnight sun changes to ice fishing under the Northern Lights on days when the sun never rises.
We talked with Santa about his meetings with visitors throughout the year, the products of his workshops, his joy in sleighing behind reindeer. Who is the Santa behind that beard and how does he become the "original" Santa Claus?
We like to believe that's a secret no intelligence agency could ever uncover.
We can only reveal that this Santa has a family and lives in the Lapland countryside not far from the Soviet border, and that his poignant meetings with leukemia children are an outreach of love for his own children and for the Christmas child.
Will he be circling the world with his reindeer this Christmas Eve?
"Close your eyes," he said, "open your heart and you'll hear me on your rooftop."
Aircraft fly from Helsinki to Rovaniemi in about an hour. You can get there on your own by car, or join one of the Santa Claus tours. There are comfortable accommodations at Rovaniemi and throughout Lapland in resort hotels and small inns. For more information, contact Scandinavian National Tourist Offices, 655 3rd Ave., 18th Floor, New York 10017, (212) 949-2333.